Rarely have the stakes been higher for Arkansas, and its newly muscular Republican Party, than in the fiscal session of the General Assembly to convene Feb. 10. Governor Beebe is hardly on the sidelines, but his legacy is not on the line; and if a meltdown is the temporary or long-term product history will record that he warned of the possibility and sought to avert it.
The lopsided victory of Jonesboro’s John Cooper in northeast Arkansas’s special State Senate election (to succeed Paul Bookout, who resigned in a campaign finance debacle) did more than boost the chamber’s Republican majority to 21 of 35 seats, and more than replace a supporter of the private option health insurance program with an outspoken adversary. It demonstrated that even on his native turf Mr. Beebe’s influence, when weighed against broad distaste in Arkansas for Barack Obama, is limited, as is his tenure; with less than a year remaining in his final term he campaigned for Cooper’s opponent, whose candidacy was based on opposition to the President’s “signature accomplishment.” It also rattled (mostly) Republican members of both Senate and House, who either will renew the private option, through the appropriations process, or scuttle it and, along with it, Mr. Beebe’s proposed budget.
Almost within hours of Cooper’s resounding win Sen. Missy Irvin of Mountain View, married to a physician, announced that she was near certain to vote against continuing the private option, expressing discontent with the compensation schedule for some medical specialists. Hers had been the “spare” vote that helped put the program over the top. Irvin was a last-minute convert. She won some comparatively minor concessions to the plan in exchange for her “aye.” With Cooper replacing Bookout there is now not an aye to spare; should Irvin make good on her pledge to reverse then the necessary three-quarter majority needed to approve the Health and Human Services budget, which contains the private option funds, evaporates. And the Senate president pro tempore, Russellville’s astute Michael Lamoureux, acknowledges that at present he can’t see the 27 ayes necessary for reauthorization.
Republican leaders in the House, where 75 votes are needed, rounded up 77 in 2013, but two-thirds of them were the Democratic minority, precisely the bloc that made Speaker Davy Carter a political curiosity — a speaker elected with a minority of votes from the majority party. Carter, a private option supporter who is term-limited, says he sees no need this year to panic. Some other Republicans, including at least a couple who are not term-limited and who do not wish primary voters to limit their terms before such is mandated by law, think a little concern would be well-advised.
Riding anti-Obama sentiment in the Red Tides of 2010 and ‘12, Arkansas Republicans won not only control of both houses of the legislature for the first time in longer than a century but the obligation to demonstrate a willingness and the talent required to work fruitfully with a quite popular governor of the opposition party. The result was the private option, a GOP-engineered alternative to the simple Medicaid expansion provided for in Mr. Obama’s Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”). It is the product of the brightest stars in the Republican caucuses — their signature accomplishment — but was enacted with a minority of the larger Republican membership.
The intra-party battle of the 2013 regular legislative session, which saw GOP moderates appealing to their Tea Party element — smarting over Carter’s successful, Democrat-empowered upset of the presumed and rather more conservative leader and hostile of anything resembling Obamacare — could be replayed yet again next month, with the outcome less than certain. Springs to mind the budget stalemates of the previous session of Congress. Carter plainly has the patience of his Washington counterpart though he hasn’t his margin or his muscle.
Factor as well the tens of millions of dollars in state tax cuts approved last year, reductions Mr. Beebe abhorred but recognized as the price of the private option. The budget he has proposed, including legal and political untouchables such as public education and parole reform, is calculated on a slow continuing recovery and a continuation of the federal dollars the private option employs. The interlocking structure of the Affordable Care Act, the private option, the existing Medicaid program and state and local health care facilities could send the state’s system of medical care and coverage to the low-income crashing to the ground, its advocates warn, should the private option be discontinued.
Absent an alternative one supposes it would be back to the Medicaid program of old, the one that has been draining the state treasury for decades. The administration, a spokesman says, has not prepared a “Plan B.” It might consider one, just to be on the safe side.
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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and the host of Arkansas Week on AETN.