LITTLE ROCK — The House Republican Caucus leader said Monday he would prefer to postpone voting on whether to appropriate money for health care expansion until a special session later in the year.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, also said the Legislature should go ahead and vote on tax cuts before making a final decision on health care, saying the two are separate issues. Gov. Mike Beebe and House and Senate leaders said they disagreed with Westerman on both points.
Talking to reporters at the Capitol, Westerman said he does not believe the Obama administration will be able to answer every question and approve every waiver related to the so-called "private option" for expanding health care coverage before the end of the session. Legislators are scheduled to conclude regular business no later than April 19 and formally adjourn the session no later than May 17.
"There’s no conceivable way to implement and get all the approvals and waivers that would be necessary for the private option. So my position, and I believe the position of the caucus, will be that we do not pass an appropriation for a program that hasn’t even been established yet and doesn’t have all the details worked out for it," Westerman said.
He said that during the session the Legislature could approve enabling legislation for the expansion and a budget for the state Department of Human Services, "just not at the level that would be needed to fully implement this program until they have all the details."
"We believe that would be a fair approach to allow them to have some time to go and work on the details, to get the waivers, to get the approvals from DHS, and for the governor to come back to us when they are ready and propose a special session, if we need to, to approve an additional appropriation," Westerman said.
Gov. Mike Beebe said later, "I’m not interested in that."
"Let’s don’t waste taxpayers’ dollars. Let’s make a decision," he said. "Deal with it, and if you don’t want to deal with it, then tell the folks no, if they don’t want to pass it, and we’ll send our money to Michigan or wherever."
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said Monday his preference is to decide the issue during the regular session.
"We’ve got some draft legislation on paper, and hopefully as the membership gets more comfortable with the data and how to move forward there will be a comfort level to deal with that … before April 19, which is certainly my goal," he said.
Republican leaders of the House and Senate have said they want to cut taxes by about $100 million this session. Westerman said Monday that postponing a decision on the expansion should not hold up any decisions on tax cuts.
"I think we can deal with the tax cuts as a separate issue from Medicaid expansion," he said. "The tax cuts deal more with the amount of projected general revenue for next year. I feel very good where we’re at as far as moving forward on the tax cuts, and I don’t see where that should be a holdup on anything we do with the private option or anything we do with health care."
Beebe said that "he and I totally disagree on that."
"If I understand what Medicaid expansion means to Arkansas from our human services people, then the two are linked," Beebe said. "Yes, technically you could do tax cuts without that, but you’d be cutting into a whole lot of folks. You’d be hurting a lot of existing programs, you’d be hurting a lot of people. So I’ve tied them together. That doesn’t mean he has to tie them together, it just means he and I disagree on that."
Carter said that resolving the issues currently before the Legislature is, as Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, has said, like solving a Rubik’s cube.
"It’s all in context. You move one section of it, it changes another section. I’m still optimistic that we can deal with all of it this legislative session," he said.
Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said he wants to resolve both issues in the regular session.
"I think it just gets hard to say, ‘I want to do the things I want to do this session, and the things other people want to do, I want to wait," he said.
Extending health care coverage to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, as proposed under the federal Affordable Care Act, would be funded entirely by the federal government for the first three years, after which the state’s share of the cost would increase gradually to 10 percent. That will be true whether the state opts to add those Arkansans to the state Medicaid rolls or use the federal dollars to pay their premiums to buy private insurance through the state health insurance exchange.
A draft by the Beebe administration of proposed enabling legislation for health care expansion began circulating among legislators on Friday. On Monday, the House GOP caucus began circulating a version of the proposal that contains some variations, including language stating that "eligible individuals will affirmatively acknowledge that this is not an entitlement program and federal Medicaid rules shall not apply."