Lawmakers differ on election’s impact on next session

LITTLE ROCK — Republicans say they expect to win majorities in the state House and Senate next month, while Democrats say they expect to retain control of the Legislature — but will a victory for either side have a significant impact on the lawmaking that happens at the Capitol next year?

Some lawmakers say they expect no major policy shifts, while others envision a decidedly more conservative Arkansas General Assembly regardless of which party rules.

Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, Senate president pro tem-elect, said Arkansas lawmakers have traditionally worked in a bipartisan manner. He said he does not expect that to change regardless of how the November election turns out.

“Hopefully we’ll all keep our eye on what is right and what is best for the state and for our people. If we do that, then I just don’t see it being a big issue,” Teague said.

But he added, “I may be being optimistic about that.”

Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, the Republican House Caucus leader, said he expects a political shift of historic proportions.

“If we have a conservative majority, I think you’ll see more conservative legislation passed than ever before,” he said.

Republicans made major gains in the 2010 election cycle, winning more legislative seats than the party has held since Reconstruction. After decades of unrivaled dominance, Democrats now hold slim majorities — 53 seats in the 100-member House and 20 seats in the 35-member Senate.

Westerman said Arkansans can expect to see a Republican majority pushing legislation to lower state income tax rates; require voter ID; set a cap on general revenue spending growth; provide tax credits for students choosing alternatives to public school; and ban abortion after a fetus becomes capable of feeling pain.

He also said GOP control of the Legislature would mean a change in the way the state addresses a looming Medicaid shortfall. The shortfall is expected to be between $250 million and $400 million in the next fiscal year.

Gov. Mike Beebe has directed state officials to develop a new payment system for health care providers, in which they are paid for episodes of care rather than for each service provided. The plan is aimed at lowering costs and improving outcomes for patients.

If Republicans are in control in 2013, “I think you’ll see us pushing for reforms like block grants, (elimination of) fraud, waste and abuse, and I think you’ll see some innovative ideas that we’ve been researching to make the system more efficient,” Westerman said.

Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, said one of those innovations is a pilot program in Florida that emphasizes giving doctors and patients more choices.

“Instead of having just one Medicaid plan, they’ve got plans that cater to different choices,” Meeks said.

Beebe also supports expanding Medicaid to include people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level under a provision of the federal Affordable Care Act, most of the cost of which would be covered with federal funds. He has acknowledged that legislative support is needed for the expansion because a three-fourths vote in both chambers would be needed to appropriate the federal money.

Westerman said he does not expect the November election to make a difference on that issue.

“I don’t believe the governor could get Medicaid expanded right now, with a Democratic majority,” he said. “I don’t see the makeup of the house changing in a way that would be any more in his favor.”

When Rep. Hank Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff, was asked if he expected the outcome of the election to impact the work done in the session, he said, “I’m fearful that it could.”

Wilkins said that if Republicans win control of the House and Senate, those bodies likely will issue resolutions declaring opposition to the Affordable Care Act, a law that Wilkins supports.

Health care “has to be paid for some way, so why not do it in a way that provides coverage for everyone, that encourages healthier choices for everyone at every level of the income spectrum, and therefore creates a healthier America and ultimately a less expensive health care system?” he said. “It just to me makes common sense.”

Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, the Democrats’ choice for the next House Speaker, would not entertain the possibility of a Republican legislative majority. He said he believes Democrats will retain control and will continue to focus on education, economic development and responsible budgeting.

“Every one of our candidates, we’re focused on Arkansas interests. We’re not influenced by billionaire brothers who don’t live in Arkansas who are trying to buy the elections here,” he said, referring to Americans For Prosperity, a conservative advocacy group funded by billionaire Kansas industrialists David and Charles Koch that has spent at least $500,000 on races in Arkansas.

A number of Republicans who were seen as moderate lost primary races to more conservative candidates in May after being targeted by AFP for defeat.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said that whichever party holds more seats, he expects to see a shift to the right in the Legislature next year.

“I do think that we’ll see a more conservative Legislature, and that’s probably within both parties. I think these races right now are pushing individuals to be more conservative, because I believe that’s where the pulse of our state is,” he said.