Arkansas state legislators are meeting in their fiscal session starting this week with the same goals they had when they met in a special session in late March: Get their necessary and Constitution-required work done fast, and keep their distance knowing three representatives already have tested positive for COVID-19.

The fiscal session occurs every even-numbered year. Created by a vote of the people in 2008, it focuses on one-year budgetary matters. Legislators then debate everything, including the budget, during the longer regular sessions that occur in odd-numbered years.

Fiscal sessions technically last 30-45 days gavel to gavel, but this time the actual work of setting the state’s 2021 fiscal policies will be completed in about 10 days. Lawmakers will be taking their cues from Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration even more than usual as they pass a budget amidst declining revenues and massive uncertainty.

Meanwhile, they’re trying to avoid getting sick themselves. Three representatives have tested positive for the disease: Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff; Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna; and Rep. Les Warren, R-Hot Springs. None are seriously ill.

To keep that number from expanding, legislators are maintaining social distancing just as they did with the late March special session, which Hutchinson called to address last fiscal year’s sudden budget shortfall. The Senate is spreading out in its chamber, with some senators stationed in the public gallery while others participate remotely. The House of Representatives isn’t even meeting at the Capitol. As during the special session in late March, lawmakers are spreading out in assigned seats in a nearby University of Arkansas at Little Rock basketball arena.

Then there’s Arkansas Works. Unlike some recent legislative sessions, this one won’t be dominated by a debate about the state program that uses mostly federal dollars under the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, to provide health insurance for 250,000 low-income Arkansans.

It was created in 2013 after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled states could choose to expand their Medicaid populations instead of being required to do so under Obamacare. Medicaid is a government program that provides health care for poor people, the disabled and the elderly. It’s funded mostly through the federal government but administered mainly by the states.

After the ruling, blue Democratic-leaning states chose to expand their Medicaid populations, while many red Republican states said no. Arkansas, which was reddening at the time, instead created the “private option.” Instead of enrolling recipients in regular Medicaid, it bought them private insurance through Blue Cross and other insurers. The program was crafted by some Republican legislators and Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration. Hutchinson embraced it after he was elected in 2014.

It’s led to several big legislative fights. While a majority of legislators support it, all state appropriations require a three-fourths supermajority, so 26 representatives or nine senators can block funding. Some Republican legislators say it’s an unacceptable government health care expansion and have tried to use those funding votes to kill it.

In several sessions, the program was funded only after a lot of arm-twisting of on-the-fence legislators. Hutchinson added a work requirement for some recipients and changed the name to “Arkansas Works,” which helped some Republicans say yes. But a court threw out the work requirement last year.

That court decision would have provided ammunition for the remaining diehard Arkansas Works opponents, but a huge fight probably wouldn’t have happened this time. The program is now established, some opponents are battle weary, and nobody really has a better idea of how to cover a quarter million Arkansans.

Because of the coronavirus, there won’t even be much debate about it. Legislators are focused on getting done fast and keeping their distance – and, anyway, a pandemic is not the time to be debating whether or how to keep providing health insurance to 250,000 people.

Steve Brawner is a syndicated columnist in Arkansas. Email him at brawnersteve@mac.com. Follow him on Twitter at @stevebrawner.

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR CAPS LOCK.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.