The House will not vote this afternoon on the private option, as originally scheduled. That presumably means that proponents do not yet have the 75 votes needed to secure the supermajority. The count is likely stuck at 73, two votes short. After insisting on daily votes last week, House Speaker Davy Carter is now taking a different approach. See this morning’s post for the lay of the political land.
Carter has said the last day of the session will be next Thursday, March 6, so the clock is ticking to get a DHS budget passed. The session could last until March 26, but Carter thus far has been adamant that it will end next week [UPDATE: see below, he gave himself some wiggle room].
If lawmakers leave the session with no budget, the governor will likely be forced to call a special session.
To reporters after the vote, Carter said that legislators who had agreed to vote for the appropriation after the amendments from Rep. Nate Bell were added had not negotiated in good faith, leading to the current impasse. Here’s Carter:
Several weeks ago, or even longer, Rep. Bell prepared and sat down with many members and worked through what are now known as the Bell amendments. Those amendments were presented to me, to House leadership, to Senate leadership and to the governor of the state of Arkansas. They were presented on certain terms and conditions, very clearly understood at that time. Those terms and conditions were conveyed to the rest of the Chamber in order to get support for those amendments. … [The Bell amendments] were approved on the understanding that the support would come along with that to avoid the exact circumstance that we are in today. Those are the facts. There is no disputing the facts.
Carter said that it wasn’t the case that he had been unwilling to negotiate. The negotiation had already happened, he said, ending with the Bell-amended bill, and legislators in Bell’s group had then turned around and voted no.
“A handful of those members that were involved in that, that were a part of those negotiations with Rep. Bell, are now the ones saying that I’m refusing to negotiate,” Carter said. “The idea that no one has sat down to negotiate this matter is false. I would submit that those negotiations on my side, Senate leadership, and the governor’s side were done in good faith.” Carter noted that there were members who were fiercely opposed to the Bell amendments, but were willing to go along with it after being told that they were necessary to get supermajority support.
Carter said that the House would now focus on all other budget items, with the aim to finish next Thursday, March 6.
Carter said it was now up to opponents to offer something with any hope of passing: “Until someone else can produce a plan that would gain enough support to amend the bill on the House floor, to send the bill back to Joint Budget and get it through Joint Budget, to make the Senate unwind everything they’ve done, and to then get three-fourths supports in this Chamber…to date, with 10 days left in the session, no one has done that.” He said he did not believe the Ballinger-Hendren amendments, (which would end the private option) had any chance of gaining enough support to pass, but they were welcome to try.
“Just produce it,” Carter said. “There is nothing,” he said, with a better chance of a supermajority than the current bill, which passed by three-fourths of the Senate and is supported by 73 House members.
Carter said it would continue to be a “game-time decision” whether or not the House votes each day; it sounds like at this point a vote will only be taken if the supermajority is there. Of ending on March 6, Carter said that “it’s time to start winding this thing down…there’s no reason we can’t get that done.” But he left himself plenty of wiggle room: “We’re going to make every effort to end March 6, but I’m not going to paint ourselves in a box.”
Bell declined to comment on the members involved in negotiations around his amendment, but has previously alluded publicly to a belief that there were other lawmakers who had suggested they would vote for the appropriation after his amendment was added, only to vote no. He did say that he was disappointed in some members of his caucus.
“I think the folks who are for the program have negotiated with me in good faith,” Bell said. “I’ve made every attempt to find a path that everyone could be for. They’ve made some rather large concessions. I appreciate the effort that they’ve put in to working with me on it, and frankly wish folks that were on my side had done more to come to the table to make it come together.”
“Every reasonable person in the state of Arkansas understands that a complete wind-down, a complete defund, or an early defund are simply not on the table,” Bell said.
Many lawmakers have speculated that part of the issue with Bell’s group was timing. They wanted to have failed votes first, and then have Bell step in and save the day with the amendments, giving them a victory lap of sorts and a clear narrative about switching their votes. When the Bell amendments were rushed through prior to a vote, that narrative was interrupted.
Also today, Rep. Greg Leding tried an amendment to the Highway and Transportation appropriation which stated that no highway could be named for a chair of the of the State Highway Commission or chair of a standing legislative committee, including existing highways. This would have forced the re-naming of a highway named for Rep. Jonathan Barnett, who typically does everything he can to grab federal dollars but has been a no on the private option. Leding’s amendment was intended to highlight the fact that the state takes millions in federal dollars for highways and other uses, even as some in the defund group argue that they cannot support the private option because it relies on federal spending which adds to the national debt. The amendment failed.