How do you convince Republicans who took over the Arkansas Legislature by vowing to fight "Obamacare" to support government-subsidized health insurance? The same way you convince a Democratic governor who has said his budget can’t include more tax cuts to agree to a large package of reductions.
As Arkansas lawmakers approach what could be the final weeks of this year’s session, it’s becoming clearer that proposals to expand health insurance to low-income workers and to cut $100 million in taxes are colliding.
The ideas have become so inextricably linked that the Republican chairman of the House panel repeatedly refers to a Rubik’s Cube when describing them and other budget issues the Legislature must wrap up before a self-imposed April 19 deadline. The Legislature is moving closer toward action on those matters and a proposal to provide $125 million in financing for a steel mill project in northeast Arkansas.
"If we get all of these pieces together, the revenue picture looks a lot better," Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, told reporters after the panel advanced his bill to cut income taxes — a proposal that will cost the state about $57 million a year.
Lawmakers are mulling a proposal that would allow Arkansas to use federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for low-income citizens — those who make up to 138 percent of the poverty line, which amounts to $15,415 per year. The insurance would be purchased through the exchange created under the federal health care law.
It’s an idea that came after Republicans resisted expanding Medicaid and called on Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe to seek more flexibility from the Obama administration. Now that Arkansas has been given that flexibility, many GOP lawmakers are moving closer toward accepting an insurance plan that would rely on a key part of the federal health care law that they vigorously opposed over the past two election cycles.
Both the health care and tax cut discussions pose plenty of unanswered questions. Republicans are still wary of signing on to a plan when they haven’t seen a written agreement from the federal government on what Arkansas will be allowed to do. They also want to see their reforms aimed at curbing Medicaid’s costs to be a part of the discussion.
For his part, Beebe has said a major problem with the tax cuts is whether they’d take effect before the state sees the savings from the insurance expansion. The tax cut package also faces criticism from some Democrats and activists who say the benefits of the reductions skew more toward the state’s wealthy.
It’s a discussion that’s looking far less like a Rubik’s Cube and more like Jenga, the stacking game with wooden cubes. Take out the wrong piece and the whole thing could collapse.
— Andrew DeMillo, Associated Press