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Private Option Funding Fails In House

LITTLE ROCK — A bill to appropriate $915 million in federal funding for the so-called private option failed Tuesday in the House in a 70-27 vote.

The measure needed a three-fourths majority vote, or 75 votes in the 100-member House, to pass. After the House adjourned, House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, told reporters the chamber would vote again on the bill Wednesday and said he remains “100 percent confident” that it will pass eventually.

Sen. President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said Tuesday he did not immediately know whether the Senate would vote on its version of the appropriation bill on Wednesday.

Carter noted that a handful of legislators who voted for the private option in 2013 voted against it or declined to vote Tuesday. He said that if the opposition continues throughout the session, there will be no appropriation for the Department of Human Services.

“If some of the members want to oppose this through this fiscal session, then they’re going to own it,” he said.

Last week the House voted to adopt amendments to the program that uses federal Medicaid money to provide private health insurance to people earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The amendments include one by Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, that would bar the state from promoting the private option and the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace.

Carter said Tuesday there will be no more amendments to the bill.

“It’s either up or down. There are no negotiations on it,” he said. “We’ve been up here 18 months, and anybody that had a genuine interest in working through the process has had an opportunity to do so.”

Gov. Mike Beebe said after the House vote that he trusted Carter’s prediction that the House would pass the bill eventually. He said he was not planning to contact members who had changed their positions.

“I’m available to talk to anybody that wants to talk about it, but there’s nothing else to be said. The facts are all out there,” Beebe said.

Bell said during debate on the House floor that he opposed the private option when it was approved two years ago, but he said a compromise is necessary if the Legislature is to complete its work within the 45-day maximum allowed for a fiscal session.

“Conservatives are going to have to accept that we are not in a position to pass a complete defund,” he said.

Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, was one of several members who spoke against the program.

“I believe our children and grandchildren will inherit a debt that they will never be able to pay,” he said.

Meanwhile, Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, said she will support the program. Her support gives the private option the needed 27 votes in the Senate.

English agreed to change her vote from a “no” last spring to a “yes” vote this week after she and Beebe’s office agreed to a plan to restructure work force and education training in Arkansas.

Under the plan, about $15 million in existing Department of Workforce Services and state two-year college money will be used for jobs training and administered by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. Beebe said the money would be used to train workers for existing industry needs.

Along with that money, Beebe said about $3.5 million from the rainy day fund and $1.2 million from general revenue also would be used.

By the 2015 legislative session, the initiative will seek a complete top-to-bottom review of all job training at the state’s two-year colleges and a possible realignment of nearly $254 million in work force training funds.

English told reporters her goal is to train and later employ people who would otherwise be living off state or federal government programs.

“While I don’t like the private option, what I don’t like even less is that we’re talking about over a third of our population being on some Medicaid program,” she said. “I’ve asked the question what are we going to do to get people off these programs, so we have fewer and fewer people the on private option, food stamps, unemployment and all that.”

Before being elected to the Legislature, English served as director of the Workforce Investment Board and later was director of the state Manufacturers Association.

Beebe said he has advocated such a proposal for years.

“The whole workforce thing has been fragmented among a bunch of different agencies and it hasn’t been performance based,” Beebe said. “It hasn’t been tied to programs where you actually are showing that the workforce training by two-year colleges or tech schools … or the workforce development folks has actually been geared toward real job creation in conjunction with business and industry.”

Beebe said English has been involved in economic and workforce development for years and once approached Gov. Mike Huckabee with a similar plan, which was rejected.

About 97,000 Arkansans have already obtained health insurance under the private option, according to the state Department of Human Services.

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