Updated 

Private option passes Senate, fails again in House


LITTLE ROCK — The Senate passed funding for the private option Thursday without a vote to spare, but the House rejected the measure for the third time.

By a vote of 27-8, the exact number needed, the Senate sent its version of the bill to the House.

Later Thursday, the House rejected its identical version of the measure in a 72-25 vote. It needed 75 votes to pass.

House Speaker Davy Carter told reporters he expected the Senate version to pass in the House on Friday — and possibly the House version as well, although only one version has to pass in both houses to be sent to the governor.

“I think everybody knows what this bill is,” said Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, before the Senate vote.

Sens. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, and Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, both spoke against the bill.

Hendren said the state could face a financial crisis down the road when it begins paying its portion of the cost of the private option.

“The state will be on the hook for $200 million to $300 million in general revenue,” he said.

Clark called the legislation “one of the worst socioeconomic policies in the history of our state that we will live to regret.”

Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, spoke for the bill, saying the availability of health insurance would eventually help the state’s economy.

“(There is a) right to pursue life, liberty, and one can’t do that without good health,” she said.

The bill would appropriate $915 million in federal funding for another year of Arkansas’ alternative to expanding the state Medicaid rolls by using federal Medicaid dollars to subsidize private insurance for low-income workers who earn up to 138 percent of the poverty level.

The federal government will pay all costs of the program for the first three years, after which the state’s share of the cost will increase gradually to 10 percent.

The measure was in doubt in the Senate after one senator who voted for it in 2013 changed her vote to “no” this year and another senator who voted yes was replaced by one who said he would vote “no.”

However, Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, who voted against the private option last year, changed her vote this year in exchange for concessions on workforce education and training programs.

The House version of the bill received its biggest “yes” vote to date Thursday. On Tuesday the vote was 70-27 and on Wednesday it was 68-27.

House Minority Whip Joe Jett, D-Success, said two Republican members, whom he declined to name, have told him they are willing to vote for the Senate version of the bill after voting against the House version — despite the two bills being identical.

“Everybody in the chamber pretty much knows that this thing’s going to pass,” he said. “People just want to get their speaking points in the well and do their politics thing for (the benefit) of campaigns or whatever.”

Carter also said he believed some members would be more inclined to vote for the Senate version but said he could not explain why.

“I’ve exhausted my ability to understand the reasoning of some of this timing, so I’ve really quit trying to,” he said.

Gov. Mike Beebe praised the action in the Senate.

“I think that’s part of the reason they they waited so long to vote, was they were accommodating folks who were in the majority that they wanted to give sufficient time to to make sure they got all their questions answered,” he said, adding that the House leadership also has done a good job of letting all sides be heard.

During debate on the House floor, Rep. Tommy Thompson, D-Morrilton, said he did not vote on Wednesday because he was concerned that two-year colleges would be hurt by the deal reached with English, which will allow the Arkansas Economic Development Commission to dole out workforce education funding that formerly was distributed to two-year colleges. He said he was voting “yes” Thursday because he was satisfied that the colleges would be taken care of.

Reps. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, Ken Bragg, R-Sheridan and Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, also voted “yes” Thursday after not voting Wednesday.