LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Mike Beebe conceded Wednesday that the election of a Republican opponent of the "private option" to a vacant state Senate seat just weeks before the Legislature’s fiscal session will make it more difficult to reauthorize Arkansas’ alternative health care expansion under the Affordable Care Act.
On Tuesday, GOP candidate John Cooper of Jonesboro defeated Democrat Steve Rockwell of Jonesboro for the state Senate seat vacated by Democrat Paul Bookout, who resigned in August amid an ethics scandal.
A three-fourths majority in the House and Senate is necessary to reauthorize the program that uses federal Medicaid dollars to subsidize private health insurance for low-income workers. The measure passed the Senate with just a single vote to spare in the 2013 regular session. Bookout voted for it.
Cooper, who campaigned against the private option, maintained his stance Wednesday at the state Capitol, where he met with Senate leadership.
"I want to do what the constituents elected me to do, and right now I’m just trying to absorb the orientation today and I don’t see anything has changed from yesterday," Cooper told reporters.
Beebe told reporters the "importance (of Tuesday’s election), as far as I am concerned, is it makes it more difficult to sustain the private option."
Lawmakers have all of the facts about the private option and it’s up to them now to decide its fate, he said.
"The facts are there. We can’t explain it anymore than we’ve explained it," the governor said. "An overwhelming majority of the Legislature believed it was the right thing to do, obviously, over three-fourths."
Nothing has changed, he said, adding that the federal government has met every demand made by the Legislature before the private option was passed last year and nearly 70,000 Arkansans have already enrolled in the health insurance program.
The Joint Budget Committee, which is reviewing budgets this week in advance of the fiscal session that begins Feb. 10, is expected to discuss the private option Thursday when it reviews the state Department of Human Services budget.
Beebe said if the Legislature fails to reauthorize the private option, major spending cuts will have to be made in his proposed $5 billion budget for the next fiscal year because it factors in about $89 million in savings from the health care expansion plan.
The governor said he has no plans to ask the Legislature to reduce or repeal the tax cuts approved last year, even though $140 million in tax cuts over a three-year period were tied directly to the savings the state would see from the private option. About $10 million in tax cuts took effect Jan. 1 and about $85 million are to take effect July 1.
"That would be a preference … but I’m pragmatic and realistic, and I don’t think there is a snow ball’s chance that that Legislature will repeal those tax cuts, and if they don’t we will balance the budget," he said.
Beebe said a number of states with Republican governors have expressed interest in creating something similar to the private option.
"It would be ironic if all the Republicans have figured out they don’t want to send their money to somebody else that they’re paying taxes for and Arkansas goes the other way," he said.
Rep. Duncan Baird, R-Lowell, and Sen. Larry Teague, R-Nashville, co-chairmen of the Joint Budget Committee, said the governor was probably right about the Legislature not repealing the tax cuts if the private option is not reauthorized.
Neither would speculate on what impact Cooper’s election would have on the Legislature’s vote to reauthorize the program.
"The whole purpose of the budget process is to get everyone down here and just start examining where everybody is," Baird said. "We can start doing the math, but what we really need is to get everyone here and starting discussing the issue. I think it would be premature to form a definite opinion on what’s going to happen."
Cooper said Wednesday he hopes to be sworn in as early as Friday.