Gov. Asa Hutchinson asked state lawmakers Monday to act quickly on his agenda for this week’s special session on the Arkansas Works program and other topics.
Lawmakers began the afternoon by convening at the Capitol at 1 p.m. to bring the 2017 regular session to its official close. After taking care of final session business that included a failed Senate vote to override Hutchinson’s veto of a bill on gambling, the House and Senate gaveled out but then gaveled back in at 2 p.m. for a special session called by the governor.
At 2:30 p.m., Hutchinson addressed a joint meeting of the House and Senate.
“My hope is that you get this done in three days (and) report home about a very successful session for the state of Arkansas,” he said.
Hutchinson asked lawmakers to approve adding new restrictions to the Arkansas Works program, giving the Legislative Council oversight authority over the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace and transferring $105 million from a state trust fund into a long-term reserve fund.
The governor wants legislative authorization to modify Arkansas Works, formerly known as the private option, to add a work requirement and lower the maximum income level for eligibility from 138 percent to 100 percent of the federal poverty level. The changes also would need federal approval, which former President Barack Obama’s administration would not give.
More than 300,000 Arkansans have obtained government-subsidized private health insurance under the program, which was created in 2013 as an alternative to the expansion of state Medicaid rolls envisioned in the federal Affordable Care Act.
“President Trump has demonstrated a commitment to give states the authority to emphasize more work opportunities and to promote personal responsibility,” Hutchinson said.
In January, the state began referring Arkansas Works participants to services offered, but not required, by the Department of Workforce Services. Hutchinson said that in the first three months of the year, 106,654 people received referrals to DWS services, and of them 3,669 accessed those services, which led to 2,991 of them landing jobs.
Hutchinson said the numbers show that there are people in the program who want to work, but they also show that “we need to implement a mandatory program, because 97 percent are not accessing those services.”
The governor said he is proposing that people in the program who are healthy, younger than 50 and do not have dependent children be required either to have a job, be in worker training, finish their education, do community service or seek addiction treatment. He said this is not a way to punish anyone.
“To the contrary, success in any and all of these areas will open the door to new opportunities. I believe that the path out of poverty is through the halls of schools and the walls of the workplace,” Hutchinson said.
Lowering the maximum income level for eligibility would transfer about 60,000 people from Arkansas Works to the insurance exchange, where they would be eligible for federal subsidies that would equal the state and federal financial support they have now, he said.
The difference would be that the state would save at least $66 million over four years, Hutchinson said. He also said some people would obtain employer-sponsored insurance instead of going to the insurance exchange, so federal taxpayer dollars would be saved as well.
Later Monday, matching bills to authorize the changes to Arkansas Works advanced out of the House and Senate committees on public health, welfare and labor.
Health Insurance Marketplace
Hutchinson said he wants lawmakers to approve making the Legislative Council the oversight body for the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace, prohibit the development of a state-based insurance exchange for individuals and make the state-based insurance exchange for small businesses optional.
Matching bills containing the proposal advanced out of the Senate and House committees on Insurance and Commerce on Monday.
Hutchinson also said he wants lawmakers to approve transferring $105 million from the Arkansas Healthy Century Trust Fund, which contains money from the state’s 1998 settlement with tobacco companies plus interest, to a long-term reserve fund.
“There’s three reasons I believe that this is important: The state’s financial strength and its resilience, improved credit rating, and economic development,” he said.
Hutchinson said Arkansas is one of only a few states without a long-term reserve fund. Creating one would allow the state to have a better bond rating which in turn would make it easier to attract economic-development projects to the state, he said.
Legislation to authorize the transfer was referred to the Joint Budget Committee, which did not advance it Monday but is expected to take it up again Tuesday morning.
Failed veto override
Sen. Scott Flippo, R-Bull Shoals, moved in the Senate on Monday to override Hutchinson’s veto of Senate Bill 496, which would have prohibited the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Division from enforcing gambling laws.
The governor has said he vetoed the bill because it would require law enforcement officers to ignore illegal conduct and would prohibit an executive agency from enforcing state law.
Flippo told senators he filed the bill because fraternal organizations in his district have been “hassled” recently by ABC over gaming machines that they had been operating for over 15 years with no problems.
The motion to override failed in a 15-14 vote, falling short of the 18 votes needed to succeed.
The bill had passed in the Senate with 24 votes.