This morning, the situation looks dire on winning conventional House approval — 75 votes — of the Human Services appropriation bill that includes money for the private option expansion of Medicaid. Proponents haven’t given up finding the two missing votes but a letter from 27 Republicans (of 51 in the House) demanding negotiations illustrates the problem, with the count at 73 of the needed 75.
Outside conservative interest groups are also targeting legislators with social media advertising to hold fast on “no” votes. The impasse gives rise, again, to a not-so-modest suggestion to attempt to upend the conventional process.
House Speaker Davy Carter could declare the bill passed with 73 votes. Or separate the private option appropriation — which is just a pass-through of federal money — and apply the widely held legal theory that an appropriation is NOT necessary for federal money. No vote is required at all to accept the federal money and spend it, according to this mainstream legal theory.
The letter from 27 Republicans asks that opponents and proponents sit down for a discussion of a “way forward.” Some in this group clearly can’t be trusted.
Rep. Nate Bell said his private option strangulation amendment — to prevent publicity about private option insurance as a first step toward a desired assassination of the program in 2015 — would gain votes for passage of the program this year. It gained only Nate Bell’s vote. The minority opinion seems to be “let’s you and I negotiate by the majority taking the minority position.” The notion that some cosmetic further sop to the bitter-enders will produce a meaningful enactment of the program, based on recent history, seems unlikely.
I prefer the Dumas option. Call another vote and declare the measure passed on whatever majority it receives. I’m persuaded by the argument of Times columnist Ernie Dumas that a straight-up court test decided by the elected Supreme Court — not appointees as in one confusing precedent on the issue — would find a court amenable to saying the 75-vote rule does not apply to essential operations of government such as this. There’s an even better alternative. Separate the private option money from the DHS budget — as the opponents desire — and then declare that “appropriation” passed by a majority vote. It is 100 percent federal money. A number of legal minds have said over many years that federal money such as this requires no state appropriation at all. Passage by this method would also end future debates over the program at least for three years, when a small state contribution will be required.
Undoubtedly, an old-fashioned 75-vote decision would be preferable at this moment. But stronger medicine might be needed to overcome an angry minority’s blockade of the majority will. If the minority succeeds, legislative governance as we’ve known it in Arkansas could be at an end. And should be.
PS — Rep. Mary Lou Slinkard, one of the yes votes who turned into a no, said there was “absolutely” no deal between her and Secretary of State Mark Martin that influenced her change of heart. A spokesman for the office told me the same yesterday. She’s his campaign chair. Rumors have been rampant that she would go to work for secretary of state’s office after her term ends this year. I still don’t have a definitive “no” to the question of whether future employment off Slinkard in the office has ever been discussed or remains a possibility.