LITTLE ROCK — Legislative leaders working to get the so-called private option reauthorized this session warn that getting it passed in 2015 will be much more difficult.
The bill has passed the Senate — with a single vote to spare — after Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, an opponent last year, switch her vote to "yes" this year in exchange for concessions on the workforce education and training program.
The House still has no passed the bill after four tries. It’s next vote comes Tuesday.
Even if the private option eventually passes, which is no guarantee, next year will present new challenges, legislative leaders say.
"I’m not saying Sen. English’s issue wasn’t a good one on its own merit, but that situation is a slippery slope," said House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot. "I think there will be some difficult sessions ahead for the Legislature."
While the private option appears to have support from a majority, tough political deals might have to be made to get the few votes needed to make it a supermajority, he said.
Because the Legislature is appropriating $915 million for the program, a three-fourths majority is needed in both the House and Senate. In the House that’s 75 votes and 27 in the Senate.
Last year, the House appropriated federal funding for the private option with two votes to spare. The Senate approved the appropriation with one extra vote but this year fell two votes short when one member’s support went sour and a new member opposed the private option.
Before last week’s vote in the Senate to approve the measure, Gov. Mike Beebe and legislative leaders announced that English had agreed to change her vote from "no" to "yes" after she and Beebe’s office agreed to a plan to restructure work force and education training in Arkansas. English opposed the private option when it was created last year.
Under the agreement, about $15 million in existing Department of Workforce Services and state two-year college money will be used for jobs training and administered by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Beebe said the money would be used to train workers for existing industry needs.
Along with that money, Beebe said about $3.5 million from the rainy day fund and $1.2 million from general revenue also would be used.
By the 2015 legislative session, the initiative will seek a complete top-to-bottom review of all job training at the state’s two-year colleges and a possible realignment of nearly $254 million in work force training funds.
Carter said he was worried that in future legislative sessions, other deals will have to be made to get support for the private option.
"Setting the private option aside, having an issue, whatever it is that’s important to the state, that allows the members, the last handful of votes in the appropriation process, to bargain with things," he said. "There’s going to have to be a lot of attention given to that. That’s concerning a little bit."
Beebe told reporters the negotiations with English was part of the political process and that the agreement with her benefits the entire state, not just her Senate district.
"I don’t buy votes," Beebe said. "That’s not to say we haven’t agreed in the past to throw my support to things in support of a vote, of course I do that. Every governor who has ever lived does that."
Asked if the agreement might cause lawmakers in future sessions to use their vote for the private option as a bargaining option, Beebe said that was a possibility.
"You fight the battle that you’re confronting," he said. "It’s not the house that jack built. It’s not a domino theory. You fight each battle as it comes along and I’m sure they’ll fight another battle in January or February (next year). That’s part of the process."
During the first week of the fiscal session, both the House and Senate approved amendments to the private option, including one that would bar the state from promoting it and the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace.
Nearly 90,000 Arkansans have already signed up for the program that uses federal Medicaid money to provide private health insurance to people earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level.
Sen. Brian King, R-Green Forest, who has opposed the private option from the beginning, said the negotiated amendments to the program will end up hurting more than helping the measure get passed in future sessions.
"The more you expand this and keep it going, the more complicated you are going to make it," he said, adding that it also could become a campaign issue during elections later this year.
Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said getting the reauthorization of the private option passed in 2015 will be much more difficult.
"I just see the difficulties we had this time and I think it will be extremely difficult moving forward," he said, noting that the Legislature is limited during a special session but can address virtually any piece of legislation during a regular session.
He said he agrees with many of the opponents of the private option but believes those concerns should be addressed in 2015 after a new Legislature and governor is elected.
"Once that is all in place, that’s the time to make a decision on which direction we want to head," he said.