LITTLE ROCK — Legislative leaders say they intend this week to resolve two of the session’s biggest issues — health care expansion and a proposal to land a $1.1. billion superproject — and to begin setting spending priorities for the next fiscal year.
The regular business of the session is scheduled to end April 19, with formal adjournment set for May 17, so lawmakers have just two weeks left to complete those tasks — and decide what to pass in the way of tax cuts.
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said Friday the House will meet as a committee of the whole at 3 p.m. today to discuss, but not take a vote, on health care expansion. The Legislature is considering whether to extend health care coverage to an estimated 250,000 of Arkansas’ working poor under the federal Affordable Care Act.
Matching Senate and House bills proposing to carry out the expansion through the so-called "private option" have been filed, and the Senate version, Senate Bill 1020, was approved by the Senate on Friday. Carter said he expects SB 1020 and the House version of the legislation, House Bill 1443, to be presented in committee Tuesday and be on the House floor Wednesday.
The bills by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, and Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, would enable state human services officials to proceed with setting up a program using federal Medicaid dollars to subsidize the purchase of private health insurance for Arkansans with annual incomes of up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level — $15,856 for an individual, $32,499 for a family of four — through the state’s health insurance exchange rather than adding them to the Medicaid rolls.
Dismang said Friday the bills would be amended, but he said the changes would not be drastic.
"Rep. Burris and I agreed to amendments … and that was just to tighten up, make sure there weren’t any loopholes, or that anyone can interpret something as a loophole," he said.
Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, said last week he was working on an alternative proposal that would move all current Medicaid recipients except for the aged, blind and disabled off of the Medicaid program and would create health savings accounts that they could use as they wished. Westerman said he did not believe the bill by Dismang and Burris — of which Westerman is a co-sponsor — would do enough to help people get off of government assistance.
Carter told reporters Friday he was giving Westerman’s ideas "zero consideration."
"That’s for him to focus on. I’m focused on passing Burris and Dismang’s bill, and that’s what I think is going to happen," he said.
The bills by Dismang and Burris contain enabling legislation and require a simple majority to pass. A separate appropriation bill, authorizing the state to spend federal Medicaid dollars on the expansion, will require a three-fourths vote in each chamber.
Carter said he believes there is enough support in the House to pass both measures and that he expects the House to pass the appropriation bill this week, most likely on Friday.
Also coming up in the House is legislation that calls for the state to float a $125 million bond issue and provide tax credits and other incentives to help Big River Steel to build a steel plant in Mississippi County. The company says the operation will employ more than 2,000 workers during construction and more than 500 permanent workers with pay averaging $70,000 a year.
Legislation by Sen. David Burnett, D-Osceola, and Rep. Monte Hodges, D-Blytheville, to approve the deal has passed the Senate and cleared a House committee. Carter said he expects it to be on the House floor Tuesday.
As with health care expansion, separate legislation will be needed to appropriate funds. Carter said that also will likely be in the House on Friday and said he expects it to pass.
Also this week, the co-chairmen of the Joint Budget Committee said they expect work to begin on the Revenue Stabilization Act, which sets annual spending priorities and prohibits the state from spending more than it takes in.
Co-Chairmen Rep. Duncan Baird, R-Lowell, and Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, said the RSA could be ready by late this week or early next week.
"We’re just trying to finish up and go home," Teague said. "I think we’re beginning to pick up. A lot of holds (on bills) have gone off. We’ve been pushing those members to get those reconciled and get them out."
"I think we’re getting into the position where we’re wrapping things up," Baird said. "We’re just working on the last few items that we have to take care of."
Teague said the remaining issue is tax cuts, "because you can’t spend the money until you know how much money you’ve got."
Senate Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said lawmakers took time away from the tax cuts discussion last week to address health care expansion, but that they will return to tax cuts this week.
He said some wanted the health care coverage issue to be resolved before making a final decision on tax cuts.
"I think we will move forward on taxes with the assumption that something will happen on Medicaid, and if it doesn’t then we’ll have to evaluate how we want to do that," Lamoureux said.
Lamoureux said he has "resisted" saying that the Medicaid issue and tax cuts are tired together, "but there is an impact and I think there are certain members who will change their views on the tax negotiations based on the impact of (Medicaid). So if (the private option) is going to happen anyway, I’d like members to know that so they can do what they do accordingly.
"It would be helpful to know whether Medicaid is going to pass or not as we are deciding the tax issue," he said.
Carter also said that resolving the Medicaid issue needs to come before passing tax cuts.
"We’re going to get this stuff dealt with first," he said.