LITTLE ROCK — In his final regular session as governor, Democrat Mike Beebe for the first time is dealing with a Republican-controlled Legislature that can easily overrule him, as it did twice in the past two weeks when it overrode his vetoes of two abortion bills.
But political observers say that with skills developed over a long career in state politics, Beebe is finding ways to stay relevant despite his lame duck status and GOP domination of the Legislature.
Beebe served as a state senator for 20 years, then as attorney general for four years before first being elected governor in 2006. Now in his second and final term because of term limits, he says he will not seek future political office.
Democrats controlled strong majorities in the House and Senate when Beebe took office as governor, but those majorities became slim after the 2010 elections and were wiped out by the 2012 elections.
He experienced his first veto overrides in the past two weeks, when legislators, including a few Democrats, nullified his vetoes of Republican-sponsored House and Senate bills to ban most abortions at 20 weeks and 12 weeks, respectively. Arkansas is one of a handful of states where a veto can be overridden by a simple majority vote.
"It’s by far the most difficult session he’s faced," said Jim Argue, who served in the Legislature as a Democrat from 1991 to 2007.
But Argue said Beebe’s inability to stop the abortion bills, which the governor says are unconstitutional, will not define his legacy.
"I think in the end how we deal with balancing the budget (and) Medicaid expansion will determine the Beebe administration’s legacy, not hot-button social issues where we have hot disagreements," he said, adding that Beebe is "a master of the budgetary process."
When the session began in January, Republican legislators generally opposed expanding Medicaid to extend coverage to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, an option under the federal Affordable Care Act. Beebe supported expansion, but it looked like a political impossibility: Legislative approval to spend federal money on the expansion requires a three-fourths vote in both chambers, a daunting threshold.
But Beebe reached out to Republican legislators, took their questions and suggestions to Washington, and won an offer from the Obama administration to let the state use federal dollars to pay for low-income Arkansans to buy private insurance instead of adding them to the Medicaid rolls. Republican resistance has shown signs of lessening since the new option was announced.
"What I’ve seen him do is meet with the legislators, bring them every bit of information that he had," said John Paul Capps, who served in the Legislature as a Democrat from 1963 to 2011. "He didn’t leave them out. He kept them in the loop and answered every question. … I think he’s been extremely relevant."
Beebe’s willingness to work with Republicans has been evident since his days in the Senate, said John Brown, who served as a Republican state senator from 1995-2003.
"I my first session in ‘95, there were five new Republicans out of seven total in the (35-member) Senate, and yet he asked us to serve on a task group that was working on the constitutional amendment on school equity funding. He wanted us involved," Brown said.
"I always had a full and fair hearing any time I had a question or an issue to take to him while he was in the state Senate," Brown added. "The perspective is, what can we do together that’s in the best interests of Arkansas? I hope my Republican friends down there will recognize that and are responding in kind."
David Bisbee, who served in the Legislature as a Republican from 1993 to 2009, cautioned against placing too much importance on the veto overrides as a measure of Beebe’s influence.
"You don’t have to win ‘em all. Gov. Beebe will always be a relevant force," he said.
Bisbee said he has heard that the session has been "contentious" and "ragged," which he attributed in part to the large number of inexperienced legislators at the Capitol. He said Beebe appears to be doing what he can to bring lawmakers together to work on important issues like Medicaid.
"That’s what a good governor does. That’s what a good president would be doing," he said, adding with a laugh, "I just had to get that little shot in there."
Beebe has gotten his way on some issues this session. He strongly opposed a bill to place an annual cap on growth in state spending, and the bill failed in the House. He also opposed a bill to allow college and university employees to carry guns on campus, and eventually the bill was modified to allow institutions to opt out, at which point Beebe dropped his opposition and the bill passed.
He also opposed a bill to exempt the names and zip codes of holders of concealed-carry permits from the state Freedom of Information Act, but after the House and Senate overwhelmingly approved it, he said he would not veto it. The bill ultimately was signed into law by Lt. Gov. Mark Darr in his capacity as acting governor while Beebe was out of the state.
"He’s had to pick his spots and fight his battles and realize that you can’t fight them all and you can’t win them all," said Hall Bass, a political science professor at Ouachita State University.
Bass said Beebe has shown himself to be "an inside guy," meaning one who works behind the scenes to make things happen. He said the governor’s work to gain Republican support on the Medicaid issue is a good example.
Bass said Beebe has been dealt a tough hand this session, but "he’s playing his hand pretty shrewdly."