LITTLE ROCK — The 2014 fiscal session began Monday, with legislators gathering to pass a budget for the coming fiscal year — with or without a private option.
The House and Senate gaveled to order shortly after noon. Neither House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, nor Senate pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, gave a speech and both chambers adjourned shortly thereafter.
The most contentious subject of the session is expected to be the reauthorization of the private option, Arkansas’ alternative to adding thousands to the Medicaid rolls by using federal money to provide private insurance to those making up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
Lamoureux told reporters a vote on the private option “could happen as early as next week” if there are no delays because of weather.
The Senate leader said he did not think the private option would pass if the vote were taken now.
“No, I don’t think it would be there if we were voting today,” Lamoureux said, adding he and others in the Senate are still discussing the issue with the nine senators who have indicated they would oppose the measure.
Asked what he was telling opposing lawmakers, he said, “Mainly it’s the impact on the budget, and the fact that I don’t think personally this is the best way to fight policy disagreements out in budget fights.”
Policy issues should be fought during the regular legislative session, he said.
Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, one of the architects of the private option, said the debate should be over policy. Iowa has passed law similar to the private option, and Pennsylvania and Utah are also considering such legislation, he said.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said there currently is no budget plan if the private option is not reauthorized.
“We need to (vote on it) sooner than later because there are obviously some ramifications that will ripple on through the budget,” he said. “A plan B is incredibly difficult to work through … it’s something that is almost impossible right now.”
The House passed the proposal last year with two votes to spare. The Senate approved the plan with an extra vote but two members have said they will vote against it this time around — one of them a member who voted for it last year but who has said she has changed her mind and the other a newly elected member who opposed the private option.
Sen. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, was elected to replace former Sen. Paul Bookout, a Democrat who resigned in August after the state Election Commission fined him 8,000 for using funds from his unopposed 2012 re-election campaign for his personal use.
Carter told reporters the private option should be addressed early in the session because “that issue will drive the entire process during this fiscal session.”
“Until we get that resolved, it’s going to be awfully hard if not impossible to set the budget,” he said. “If for some reason the support isn’t there, we’re going to have to start from scratch.”
Carter said he believes there is enough support now in the House to approve funding for the private option.
On Monday, the Joint Budget Committee endorsed House Bill 1002, the proposed General Appropriation Act, which funds the executive, judicial and legislative branches. The nearly $40 million bill includes a 1 percent pay raise for constitutional officers and judicial officers. It does not include raises for state legislators.
Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, said the 1 percent is equal to the raise recommended by the governor for state employees in the 2014-15 fiscal budget.
Asked if the governor’s office supported the raise recommendation, Teague said he did not know.
“I know that the judges do,” he said. “In fact, I don’t think we can print enough money to make the judges happy.”