The governor is hoping to pass a Medicaid budget via a clever procedural path: an amendment would be attached via Special Language to the Medical Services appropriation that would kill “Arkansas Works,” the governor’s plan to continue the private option. If that appropriation passed, the governor would then use his line-item veto power to nix that amendment, and Medicaid expansion would continue.
That still may prove to be the path forward, but the maneuver hit a roadblock today when the amendment, presented by Sen. Jim Hendren today in the Joint Budget Committee, failed to get the needed simple majority to pass. The vote was 22-22. A number of members that probably would have voted for the amendment were absent or out of the room, so Hendren might actually have the votes to pass it. But that’s irrelevant if Democrats won’t go along with the governor’s game and vote for the appropriation. Hendren and the governor need the entire pro-“Arkansas Works” coalition to buy in.
On Tuesday, JBC will meet again and will likely give another shot to passing the amendment, and moving ahead with the governor’s line-item-veto plan to save Medicaid expansion. But four days is a long time in a fluid, unpredictable process! We’ll see.
Nearly all Democrats voted against the amendment. All afternoon there had been rumors that the caucus needed more time before committing to the governor’s plan. Democratic lawmakers who voted against the amendment today said they did not want to vote for an amendment that killed the Medicaid expansion, regardless of the governor’s scheme to save expansion in the end.
“It is the antithesis of what I believe my constituents want,” said Sen. Linda Chesterfield said. “My constituents want Arkansas Works to be funded.”
And so, an irony: the whole point of this gambit was to allow some members of the Tea Party Ten to vote their conscience even though they were losing on the substantive policy. But the ploy is stalled because Democrats chose to vote their conscience, thereby blocking a path at least for now to win on the substantive policy.
“I don’t know what the governor’s scheme is,” Chesterfield said. “All I know is that the people I represent are not going to appreciate me voting not to fund Arkansas Works.”
Chesterfield said that she had spoken to the governor and that he had said he would follow through with his end of the bargain. “I appreciate that very much, but at some point in time the people on this committee are going to have to step up and say what they really mean,” she said.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang said that the governor’s gambit might just need more time to percolate with members. “We’re going to come back in on Tuesday,” Dismang said. “We knew before taking that vote that there were members that were concerned about the timeline, wanted a little bit more time to work through it. I wasn’t surprised at all about how that turned out. We’re going to have the weekend to talk about it with members.”
Dismang expressed confidence that the JBC would come around on the line-item-veto plan. Either way, Dismang said, “what folks need to realize is that we need to be looking for a path — that’s both sides. If you’re opposed to Arkansas Works, you need to find a path. I don’t know how you’re planning to move forward. If you’re supportive, you need to be looking for a path.”
While Dismang was copacetic, other pro-“Arkansas Works” Republicans were visibly frustrated after the vote, fretting that Democrats have snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
But Sen. Joyce Elliot said that her vote against the amendment was a principled stand. “There are ten people who have an option to do the right thing by people in the right way, rather than a convoluted, circuitous route to get to a resolution that we know we need to have for the people of this state,” she said. “I can appreciate the governor and Sen. Hendren and others trying to find a way forward. For me, this is not it.”
Elliot continued: “If these ten people can take their principled positions and say no, that suggests that the rest of us are not entitled to take our principled positions and vote however we want to. What’s so special about some senators and not others?”
“I am out of patience with making it possible for folks to be ideologues and then somebody says to me, ‘be the grownup,'” Elliot said. “I’m being the grownup here.”
Multiple Democrats have told me that the caucus is somewhat split on this question. Ultimately, it’s hard to believe that the procedural principle that Elliot is referring to would be worth the material consequences of losing on Medicaid expansion. If the governor’s gambit proves the only way to move forward, would Democrats hold their noses and go along?
One possibility is that the caucus simply needs time. The governor sprung this idea on them at the last minute, just a few hours before the JBC vote today (some Democratic lawmakers had no inkling of the plan until we published a report on it this morning). The nature of the plan demands trust between multiple actors. Multiple Democrats have legal questions about whether this approach would definitively work. The governor’s team, for better or worse, plowed ahead with the plan before they had secured the backing and support of the Democratic caucus. Perhaps once they’ve had time to digest the approach and had their questions answered, Democrats may be on board if “Arkansas Works” backers try this again next week.
I asked Chesterfield whether she would reconsider her position. ““I’m going to have to really, really consider this because of the language,” she said. “Yet I understand that there is that ploy, and I’m politically astute enough to follow along and find out what the end is going to be.” Elliot said that she too would remain open-minded going forward, and said, “it is absolutely important that [Medicaid expansion] passes — I don’t discount that whatsoever.”
There is a risk to waiting. As of today, the Medical Services appropriation — despite the governor’s clear plan to continue the Medicaid expansion via his veto pen — had the votes to pass the Senate if the proponents went along with the plan. At least two, and probably more, of Tea Party Ten were willing to go along. While they would get a show vote for the appropriation that has the language they prefer, on the substantive policy, the aginners surrendered! Medicaid expansion could have been funded as soon as tomorrow.
More time means more uncertainty. And it means more time for Americans for Prosperity and other right-wing advocacy groups to try to convince the Ten to hold the line and vote against their own appropriation in order to stop Medicaid expansion. Maybe Bart Hester and Blake Johnson will change their minds. I asked Elliot about this risk.
“I guess I should be concerned about it because it seems to me that there is a whole history of people folding to AFP,” Elliot said. “I would think this would be an excellent opportunity for them not to do that. I would like to provide them with that opportunity.”
Elliot said that nearly all of the constituents that had contacted her had asked her to vote for Arkansas Works. “To every one of them, I said of course I will,” she said. “I think that should mean something.” She said that she was not comfortable voting against something that she had promised to vote for, regardless of the strategic maneuvering.
To the Tea Party Ten, Elliot had this message: “If you’re not thinking about your district enough to vote to make sure that the people in your district aren’t hurt, then I think you have some soul searching to do. Don’t look at me and say, ‘bail me out.’ I am not that person.”