LITTLE ROCK — A budget bill containing funding for the governor’s Medicaid expansion plan cleared the Senate on Wednesday, thanks to an unconventional strategy that involved asking supporters of the plan to vote to kill it in order to save it.

LITTLE ROCK — A budget bill containing funding for the governor’s Medicaid expansion plan cleared the Senate on Wednesday, thanks to an unconventional strategy that involved asking supporters of the plan to vote to kill it in order to save it.


Senate Bill 121 by the Joint Budget Committee passed in a 27-2 vote, receiving exactly the number of votes the appropriation bill needed to reach the required three-fourths majority in the 35-member Senate.


The bill goes next to the House, which is expected to vote on it Thursday. House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, told reporters he was "99 percent confident" the House would approve the bill and send it to the governor.


SB 121, which would fund the state’s Medicaid program, including Medicaid expansion, failed in the Senate in a 25-10 vote last week. Supporters resolved the impasse by amending the bill to include a provision ending Medicaid expansion on Dec. 31 of this year — a provision Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he will remove with a line-item veto.


Sens. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, and Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, who oppose the governor’s Medicaid expansion plan, titled Arkansas Works, voted for the amended funding bill Wednesday despite the promised veto.


"I voted to defund," Johnson said after the vote, adding that if the governor vetoes the sunset provision for Arkansas Works, "that’s executive privilege. It’s up to the governor how he handles that situation."


Of the other eight senators who oppose Arkansas Works, five — Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, Scott Flippo, R-Bull Shoals, Terry Rice, R-Waldron, and Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch — voted "present," an option that allows legislators not to vote for or against a bill; Sens. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, and Bryan King, R-Green Forest, voted no, and Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, was not in the chamber.


Hutchinson said in a statement Wednesday, "I am pleased with today’s vote in the Senate. This, of course, is just one step in the overall process, but I am confident that the bipartisan approach that achieved success in the senate will provide momentum for this strategy for funding Arkansas Works as it heads to the House floor tomorrow."


The Legislature easily approved Arkansas Works during a three-day special session earlier this month, but the three-fourths majority requirement for budget bills has made approving funding for the program more of a challenge.


Arkansas Works would continue, with some changes and a new name, the state’s Medicaid expansion program known as the private option.


The private option has provided government-subsidized private health insurance to more than 267,000 low-income Arkansans since it was created in 2013 as an alternative to the Medicaid expansion envisioned in the federal Affordable Care Act. Hutchinson’s plan for the program adds features such as referrals to voluntary work training for unemployed recipients and small premiums for recipients earning more than 100 percent of the federal poverty level.


During debate on the Senate floor Wednesday, Rice said, "I have heard lies, half-truths, misinformation since the private option’s inception."


Rice said that misinformation included projections that no more than 250,000 Arkansans would qualify for the program and statements that the process of verifying the eligibility of recipients would go smoothly.


Collins-Smith said, "I don’t like the deception. I’ve kept my word. I’ll continue to keep my word."


Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, who sponsored the amendment to the Medicaid budget bill that Hutchinson, Hendren’s uncle, plans to veto, said no deception was involved.


"When I presented the amendment, I could not have been more clear what was going to happen," Hendren said.


Sen. Jason Rapert R-Conway, said people in his district have asked him to vote for the bill and said he had not heard any senator lie to secure votes for it.


"We are doing exactly what we think is the right thing to do," he said.


The Arkansas chapter of conservative advocacy group Americans for Prosperity issued a statement Wednesday praising senators who voted against the bill and warning that it will consider all "yes" votes as votes in support of "Obama’s Medicaid expansion in Arkansas."


General Appropriation Act


The House voted 98-0 to approve the General Appropriation Act, which funds expenses of the Legislature and the judicial branch, and sent the bill to the House.


The usually uncontroversial appropriation bill failed to gain a 75 percent majority vote twice previously, as House Democrats used it as leverage to encourage passage of the Medicaid funding bill in the Senate. The general appropriation is required by the Arkansas Constitution to be the first bill given final passage when the General Assembly meets in session.


Committee action


The Joint Budget Committee endorsed, without debate, and sent to the House an appropriation bill containing administrative funding for the state Department of Human Services, including $280,000 for the salary of Cindy Gillespie, the agency’s director since March 1. John Selig, the previous DHS director, received an annual salary of $162,147.


The Joint Budget Committee’s Special Language Subcommittee voted to add language to HB 1052, an appropriation for public libraries, to prohibit municipal and county libraries from being placed in flood zones or flood-prone buildings, with some exceptions. Sen. Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne, said he proposed the language because a library in his hometown is considering such a move.


Sen. David Burnett, D-Osceola, proposed adding special language to HB 1052 that would transfer $1 million from the state land commissioner’s office to public libraries to replace a $1 million cut to library funding that the Legislature approved last year.


Burnett withdrew his amendment after officials with the land commissioner’s office objected, but he asked that it be kept on the agenda.