By John Lyon
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — The House Democratic Caucus announced its legislative agenda Wednesday, nearly seven weeks into the regular session.
At the top of the agenda is Medicaid expansion, Democratic House members, in the minority for the first time in nearly 140 years, declared in a news conference at the Capitol, saying the announcement Tuesday of an alternative option for expansion opens new possibilities for the state.
“We know what an important thing it is to get a quarter of a million Arkansans access to health care, 80,000 of whom are the parents of about 54,000 children,” said Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, the House minority leader.
“Not only is it just the right thing to do to get these quarter of a million Arkansans access to health care, but it’s also an economic driver,” he said. “We’re looking at about $550 million added to our state’s GDP, we’re looking at about 6,200 new jobs and about 2,800 lives saved each year.”
Gov. Mike Beebe said Tuesday the Obama administration has given Arkansas permission to opt for an alternative version of Medicaid expansion in which people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level would receive subsidies to buy private insurance through the state’s health insurance exchange, instead of being added to the state’s Medicaid rolls as originally proposed under the federal Affordable Care Act.
The federal government would pay all costs for the first three years, after which the state’s share would increase gradually to a maximum of 10 percent. The state could opt out an any time.
Republican legislators, who hold majorities in both the House and Senate, had expressed resistance to adding 250,000 Arkansans to the Medicaid rolls and to making a permanent commitment to expansion. They have said the new options may be more palatable but they want to study them further.
Leding said Wednesday the governor “brought back some great options from Washington, D.C., and now it’s up to the Legislature to discuss, debate and act on those options.”
Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, vice chairman of the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, said there are uncertainties about the long-term costs of the expansion, so a sunset clause that would require reauthorization in three years, which Beebe and Republican leaders have suggested, is “very viable.”
Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, said House Democrats want the rest of the session to focus on health care, education, the economy and transparent government.
“This is a little different for us, because we’re not used to being in the minority,” he said. “But we believe that we can work with our colleagues on the Republican side of the aisle and put Arkansas first,” he said.
Williams said legislators campaigned on creating jobs.
“We’ve not focused on it yet this session, but we’re committed to focusing on doing that,” he said.
The first several weeks of the session, which began Jan. 14, have been dominated mainly by measures to expand gun rights and limit abortions.
“Republicans now do hold the majority, and they’ve been able to control the conversation. We felt that it was time to emphasize that we do have an agenda,” Williams said.
He also noted that House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, has said he wants the focus of the session to shift away from social issues and toward economic issues.
In addition to supporting Medicaid expansion, Leding said Democratic legislators are working on bills to create clean-energy jobs, help small businesses and entrepreneurs obtain financing and create an online portal where people could learn about the fees, applications and licenses they need to start a new business.