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House speaker meets with private option opponents as stalemate continues


LITTLE ROCK — The stalemate over the private option continued Wednesday, but House Speaker Davy Carter began meeting privately with a group of Republican House members who oppose the private option to talk about finding a way to appropriate a new round of federal funding for the program.

After the House adjourned for the day without taking up the private option, Carter, R-Cabot, told reporters he had agreed to meet with the group later in the afternoon.

Shortly before 6 p.m., Carter said he had met with the group for about two hours and had “a really good discussion.” He said the talks would continue.

“Although there was no solution, it was a policy discussion about the semantics of how the system works and that sort of thing. They’re going to continue to meet and they’re going to circle back up with me, maybe even sometime tonight, and we’re supposed to meet sometime in the morning,” he said.

The House voted four times last week on the appropriation but each time fell a few votes short of the 75 needed to approve it. The Senate passed the appropriation last week in a single vote.

As he has repeatedly in recent days, Carter expressed doubt Wednesday that the bill could pass in the House with new amendments.

“Any amendment would require 51 votes on the House floor,” he said before meeting with opponents. “There’s just simply not 51 members that have had a desire to change the bill, otherwise I would argue that would already have been done. So therein lies the quagmire that we’ve all been dealing with the last week. But we’ll sit down and talk about it and see what’s realistic, what’s not realistic.”

Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, one of the architects of the private option, said an agreement might be possible that would not amend the bill.

“Sometimes it’s just something DHS can do,” he said. “I think amendments to the appropriation would be pretty difficult at this point, but I just don’t want to rule anything out.”

Burris joined Carter in meeting with GOP opponents.

The private option is Arkansas’ program to use federal Medicaid money to subsidize private health insurance for people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The state Department of Human Services said Wednesday that 127,051 Arkansans have been found eligible for coverage and that of them, 93,966 have been enrolled in private plans and 11,595 have been enrolled in traditional Medicaid coverage.

Those numbers do not include about 4,000 children who have been enrolled in coverage through ARKidsFirst, the state’s children’s insurance program.

The $915 million appropriation of federal funding for the private option is included in the budget for DHS’ Medical Services Division. The impasse over the private option has cast doubt over whether DHS’ budget will get approval before the end of the fiscal session, which cannot be extended beyond 45 days.

Gov. Mike Beebe said Wednesday he’d hate to end a session without a budget.

“That’s Washington gridlock and we can’t come to that. … We’re not like those people in Washington. Maybe I’m too optimistic, but I can’t believe that elected officials in Arkansas would be like Washington, D.C.,” the governor told reporters.

Beebe’s proposed balanced budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1 includes about $89 million in anticipated savings from the private option. The governor said that should the Legislature pass a budget that does not include the private option, his office will make recommendations on where to make cuts to the budget. He said he would not discuss those recommendations now.

“There’s 135 legislators and me, so there is probably going to be 136 ideas on whose ox gets gored, who gets cut and how much,” he said. “We know they can’t cut K-12 (education) … and that is 50 percent of the budget, so that means they’d have to cut all that money from half the budget.”

Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, told reporters he plans to propose an amendment that would separate the private option from the rest of DHS’ budget. He said he did not present the amendment Wednesday because the private option did not come up for a vote.

Cozart admitted that the amendment probably would not pass but said, “I think we still have to make a statement. … I don’t want to leave without a budget.”

Cozart said he is not willing to vote “yes” on the private option to get a budget passed.

Also Wednesday, the Senate rejected Senate Resolution 9 by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, which asked the Senate to consider a bill to allow the director of the Arkansas State Police to issue security guard licenses to school employees and allow them to serve as armed security for their schools. The licenses could not be issued to classroom teachers.

The vote was 23-4. The resolution needed 24 votes to pass.

Elsewhere, the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee gave a “do pass” recommendation Wednesday to Senate Bill 139 by Sen. Eddie Joe Williams R-Cabot, which would allow the governor not to call a special election for the office of lieutenant governor. The bill advances to the full House.

The office has been vacant since Mark Darr resigned Feb. 1 after being fined $11,000 by the state Ethics Commission for misuse of campaign contributions and taxpayer dollars. SB 139 seeks to avoid the expense of a special election since the office is up for election anyway in November.