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Private Option Fails Again In House; Next Vote Tuesday

LITTLE ROCK — An appropriation for the so-called private option failed for the fourth time in the House on Friday as tensions between House members appeared to escalate.

After failing to pass the House’s private-option appropriation on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday, the House voted Friday on the Senate’s identical version, Senate Bill 111, and rejected it as well. The vote was 71-18 on the bill, which needed 75 votes to pass.

The House meets next on Tuesday. House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, told reporters the House would vote again Tuesday and would continue to vote until the appropriation passes.

“I’ve been told, and many of you have been told, that there are some members that are waiting for Tuesday to cast a ‘yes’ vote,” he said. “We’re going to get this issue resolved, and there’s no question of that. There are 100,000-plus people out there that are literally hanging on what we do up here.”

The Senate voted 27-8 on Thursday to pass SB 111, which contains the budget for the Medical Services Division of the state Department of Human Services, including $915 million in federal funding for the private option. About 102,000 Arkansas have applied and been found eligible for the program, which subsidizes private health insurance for people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Carter called several recesses during Friday’s House session as members tried to work out a procedure known as “pairing,” in which a member can vote without being present as long as his or her vote is paired with that of a member who is present and is voting the opposite way.

At one point, Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, objected to one pairing, saying that Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, who was announced as pairing his vote with that of the absent Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, was not present. She said later that Payton had to leave for a dentist’s appointment.

Carter announced, “We’re going to ask the state police to go get Mr. Payton,” but Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, ultimately agreed to pair his vote with Murdock’s.

Talking to reporters later, Carter expressed frustration with the difficulties encountered in pairing votes, which is normally a routine matter.

“That’s a common courtesy that has been given to the members as long as this chamber has been operating, and if we’ve got members that want to take such an approach, I mean, that’s pretty telling, not only to their attitude about what we’re dealing with but about their approach to the appropriation that we’re talking about,” he said.

During debate on the House floor, Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, said he had decided to vote “yes” after previously voting “present” because despite having reservations about the program, he believed it would help the state’s economy by improving workers’ health.

“Unfortunately, we hear about the tensions and we hear about the almost outright fights and the disagreements among friends.” he said. “I’ve even experienced this somewhat within my family: I’ve got one sister who’s telling me to vote ‘no’ and I’ve got another sister who’s going, ‘Hey, sounds good.’ It is dividing us, but it doesn’t have to.”

Minority Whip Joe Jett, D-Success, told reporters he believed the bill would pass eventually, but he said that if the private option continues to be defeated, Democratic members could decide not to support any other budget bills.

“We’re going to give it one or two more days, but I’m telling y’all, we’ll get to the point in time where my side will say, ‘Hey, enough’s enough.’ If that’s what we’ve got to do, we’ll go home and we’ll let the governor call a special session,” he said.

Hobbs, who has been voting against the private option, said that with the House leadership saying it will consider no further compromises, “I’m not sure where the votes would come from.”

The Senate did not meet Friday.

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