Gov. Asa Hutchinson, House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, and Senate President Jonathan Dismang today met with the Legislative Black Caucus to address questions about the governor’s line-item veto strategy to continue the Medicaid expansion. The governor received a standing ovation, and while the Caucus made no official commitments, most Caucus members seemed very positive about the governor’s strategy.
Crucially for some members, Hutchinson made a commitment to use his bully pulpit to publicly make clear that Democrats supporting the line-item-veto strategy were voting to continue the Medicaid expansion (even though his gambit requires them to make a show vote against it).
“I thought it was most gracious of him to come,” said Sen. Linda Chesterfield, chair of the Caucus. “It shows the governor’s willingness to work across party lines and to make sure that every voice is heard in this discussion.” Chesterfield, who voted against the plan on Thursday in Joint Budget, said that she is now learning toward supporting the strategy. “I’m leaning more toward it because more people understand it,” she said. “At the end of the day, all I want is the ultimate result: 267,000 folks getting health insurance. I just want to make sure that it is done effectively and that it meets the needs of those folks.”
The maneuver is an end around ten Republican senators who are currently blocking the entire Medicaid budget because of their opposition to “Arkansas Works,” the governor’s plan to continue the private option Medicaid expansion. The governor proposes passing an appropriation that includes an amendment killing “Arkansas Works”; once passed, the governor would use his line item veto to nix the amendment, allowing the Medicaid expansion to continue fully funded. The ploy demands that “Arkansas Works” backers make a show vote against what they want in order to get the outcome that they do want. Democrats, most of whom had only a few hours to digest the plan, balked on Thursday.
The governor told the Black Caucus that he wanted to be transparent about the approach and take any questions they had.
Lawmakers asked Hutchinson whether the media was explaining that the ruse of passing an appropriation that killed “Arkansas Works” was actually an effort to save “Arkansas Works.” And they expressed concerns about negative ads attacking them for voting against “Arkansas Works” because of the show vote. The governor committed that if that happened he would speak out publicly and loudly that the Democrats (and Republicans) backing this scheme were in fact defending the Medicaid expansion and ensuring that “Arkansas Works” was funded.
“That’s very important,” Chesterfield said. “This is about the individuals who live in areas like where I come from, in Hope, Arkansas. There are small enclaves across this state that don’t have access to news, and then you have to explain that I voted No to vote Yes. That’s a difficult haul. But the governor has said that he would use the bully pulpit to explain it. And nobody can explain it like the governor can, or has the access to the press [that the governor does]. I want him to use that bully pulpit…and give people an opportunity to let it soak in that this is what’s going on.”
Hutchinson was also asked what would happen if he died before he had a chance to veto the amendment. He said he planned on living a good long while. It’s a legitimate question, though: Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin has been artfully dodging questions about his own position on “Arkansas Works.” This scenario seems to demand an answer.
Hutchinson was also asked about the legal questions and he said that his office had thoroughly vetted it and was confident that it withstand any legal challenge (the governor’s staff also met with Democratic lawmakers this morning on that matter).
Chesterfield said that the reason that the line-item plan went down last Thursday is that Democrats didn’t have an opportunity to digest the plan and communicate with the constituents and advisers.
“We didn’t have time,” said Chesterfield, who found out about the plan for the first time when Republican leadership met with the Senate Democratic Caucus last Thursday morning. “I don’t think you spring stuff on us that quickly. That’s not how that goes. I had to digest that. I’m one of those who does not like quick votes on anything because the devil is always in the details.”
Chesterfield continued: “I need time for people in Bobby Pierce’s district or in [Sen. David] Burnett’s area to understand that his No vote might really be a Yes vote.”
Chesterfield said that she wasn’t too concerned on potential legal issues. “The governor has the authority to issue a line-item veto,” she said. “That is not a question for me.”
Rep. Reginald Murdock, another member of the Caucus, said that it was important that the governor came to give them comfort on the odd scheme to “vote No to mean Yes.”
“The messaging is very important because we worked so hard for this,” Murdock said. “Because of the political situation, it’s necessary that we take a reverse vote. Our constituency needed to understand that. We want everybody to understand that we are in favor of continuing this program. I want to give the governor credit for an innovative approach. I know he’s taking a hit with his base with this. But he knows what it means to the economy, what it means to health care, and what it means to the budget.”
Murdock said that he was personally on board with the line-item strategy, saying that he had gotten the information he needed to support it. “But it’s also important that we give that same assurance and information to other members who need that,” he said.
Murdock pointed out that he had swallowed the bitter pill of the Bell amendment in order to get the private option re-authorized because it was so vital to protect the more than 200,000 Arkansans dependent on the policy for health insurance. Given the stakes, that was worth it, he said. And Murdock noted a key distinction: while the Bell amendment was actually bad policy, in this case, the line-item trick involves no policy concessions at all.
“It has to be bigger than our own feelings and some of the politics,” he said. “It’s about the state budget, the economy, but most importantly to keep people healthy.”