The lawmakers representing Logan County in the Arkansas General Assembly are pretty happy right now.
That’s because sometime today (Wednesday) the current fiscal session of the General Assembly will end.
"I’m ready for it to be over," State Rep. Jon Eubanks, R-Paris, said.
"I’m very glad it’s over," State Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, said. Stubblefield’s Senate District includes Logan County.
Both lawmakers also questioned the need for fiscal sessions.
"I don’t know if fiscal sessions are in the best interest of Arkansas," Eubanks said. He listed four reasons.
"Based on my understanding, fiscal sessions were to deal with budgetary issues and not substantive issues," Eubanks said pointing to the lengthy debate in this session over the so-called private option.
"In the past, it appears that one session worked just fine when dealing with budgetary items," Eubanks said. "Having a session every year costs additional money. And, when you have a lot of legislators in Little Rock, who knows what’s going to happen?"
Stubblefield echoed those thoughts, adding "we could have taken care of a lot of what we dealt with in a regular session."
Both lawmakers said this session of the General Assembly was intense and stressful. And the private option was the reason.
The private option is Arkansas’ program, approved last year, to use federal Medicaid money to pay for people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level to obtain insurance through the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace. About 102,000 Arkansans have been found eligible for the program, but if funding for the coming fiscal year had not been renewed, the program would had to have been scrapped.
The Senate passed the private option last month. Stubblefield voted no. After failing to pass the legislation four times, falling a few votes short of the 75 needed to pass the legislation, the House finally passed the private option on Tuesday, March 4 in a 76-24 vote. Eubanks voted yes. In the House, a three-fourths majority — 75 votes in the 100-member House — is needed to approve any appropriations bill.
Some have suggested that the Monday, March 3 closing of the filing period for the May primary election had an impact on voting for the private option, saying a vote either way could become political ammunition in a contested primary election.
"I can see where a lot of people might say that," Eubanks said. "But I believe it just took that long to get the votes. Two of the three lawmakers who switched their votes on the private option are term limited, so the filing deadline obviously had no impact on those votes."
The lengthy and contentious debate over the private option was a stark contrast with previous legislative session, Stubblefield said.
"In the last session, there was no contention at all," he said. "This one was full of tactics that I’ve never seen before in an attempt to get a piece of legislation passed. There were a lot of offers made. I’m not sure the citizens of Arkansas appreciate that."
"Anytime you have issues as serious as the private option," Eubanks said, "it brings another level of intensity. They wanted to make sure they were making the right decision and considering all options."
Also during the session, Stubblefield and other lawmakers were unsuccessful in getting an additional $10 million in funding for the state’s Human Development Centers, including the one at Booneville.
"I fought pretty hard for additional funding for Human Development Centers," Stubblefield said. "We were able to draw a lot of attention to HDCs and their needs. We’re going to have some meetings this summer at the Booneville center, so we’re going to keep trying."