LITTLE ROCK — Lawmakers return after a long holiday weekend to the state Capitol on Tuesday for the second week of the fiscal session with a showdown looming on the private option.
“We’re going to vote on Tuesday,” House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, said this week, referring to House Bill 1150, the appropriation for the state Department of Human Services’ Medical Services Division, which includes the use $915 million in federal funds for the private option in the next fiscal year which begins July 1.
An identical bill, SB 111, sits in the Senate.
“I’ve heard some things about, well maybe the House really shouldn’t vote or won’t vote first,” Carter said. “Let me make it very clear: The House is going to vote first,”
Carter added that he does not anticipate anything material being debated “until we get this other issue resolved.”
Carter, Senate Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, and other legislative leaders said this week that if the private option isn’t reauthorized it would mean the Legislature would have to redo the governor’s proposed $5 billion budget for the 2014-2015 fiscal year because it includes about $89 million in savings from the private option.
Gov. Mike Beebe has also said his proposed balanced budget takes into consideration about $85 million in tax cuts approved by the Legislature last year that will go into effect in the coming fiscal year. The Legislature approved 11 separate tax cuts totaling about $140 million over a three-year period. About $10 million in cuts took effect Jan. 1, while $85 million take effect July 1.
During debate over the proposed tax cuts last year, the Republican-controlled Legislature and Beebe, a Democrat, agreed to phase the tax cuts in over a three-year period to take advantage of the savings anticipated from the private option.
Last week, the Joint Budget Committee approved an amended version of the private option. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, co-chairman of the budget committee, said the panel will continue to meet and consider budget bills.
“I’ve told Lamoureux that I’m going to try to clear the calender every day so that we’re in the posture of going home when we get to where we can,” Teague said. “Assuming the private option passes, then we move forward very close to the governor’s budget. But if it doesn’t pass, then we move forward, pass those appropriations, and go under the Revenue Stabilization Act and fix it.”
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said everything hinges on the vote on the private option.
“If it’s non-passable, regardless of whatever changes are out there … there are some ramifications that will ripple on throughout the budget,” he said.
Because a fiscal session can last no more than 45 days, Carter said not passing the private option would make it difficult to broker a budget.
“I guess we would leave here without a budget set, so we would have to come back,” he said.
Carter told reporters last week he thought there were enough votes in the House to approve the private option.
In the Senate, however, it was a different story.
“Still looking for votes,” Lamoureux said.
The Senate President pro tem, along with Dismang and others, were meeting with the nine senators opposed to the proposal. They need to persuade two to change their minds.
One of those nine, Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, who was the only one of the holdouts to vote for the proposal last year, said last week she wasn’t budging on her no vote.
“I don’t support the policy based on the facts that unfolded in the federal government level, so whether there are amendments on it or not I stand opposed to the policy,” she said.
Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, an architect of the private option, said it’s a policy issue.
“The truth is we have a number of members who voted no last time, for good reason,” he said, adding they were concerned about the cost and the “concept” of the plan.
“Well it’s operational now,” he said. “We’re seeing not only individuals getting coverage and care, but you’re seeing things that we predicted not to happen happen. One, the waiver was approved. Two, the rates, the average rates, are not $10,000 annually as some predicted.”
Meanwhile, the House and Senate each overwhelmingly supported a resolution that would allow them to consider a bill to authorize the governor to forgo calling a special election to fill the lieutenant governor’s office, which was left vacant by the Feb. 1 resignation of Mark Darr.
A two-thirds majority is needed in the House and Senate to allow the bill to be considered. However, at the end of the week it was not clear when there would be a vote on that measure.
“That’s just a non-issue,” Carter said. “Once we get (the private option) resolved, everything else is going to fall neatly in place. I think that’s all secondary.”