Key Medicaid expansion supporters in the Arkansas Legislature beat their opponents in Republican primaries. That will make it easier to persuade lawmakers to support Arkansas Works, Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday.
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"Arkansas Works was on the ballot in the context of those who believe in providing common sense practical solutions to Arkansas ... standing up to those that are single issue or misconstrue the vote and misrepresent the vote," the governor told about 250 people attending a Political Animals Club luncheon in Little Rock.
But legislative leaders agreed that the primary results shouldn't be taken as a voter mandate to continue the Medicaid expansion, in which the state is using federal funds to buy private health insurance for low-income Arkansans.
Instead, some lawmakers said the wins by Arkansas Works supporters demonstrate a limited reach of deep-pocketed groups like Conduit for Action, which sought to link the program to Obamacare.
"If you use their logic then yes, this was a clear mandate, but I don't look at it that way," Arkansas House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, said in an interview. The election "sent a signal that you can be a statesman, you can be a stateswoman, you can handle the business of your district without fear of outside money coming in to influence. I think there was more of a mandate on that. If you're in Batesville ... you should definitely listen to the folks that are local more so than somebody out of Northwest Arkansas writing a lot of checks."
Businessman Joe Maynard and lawyer Brenda Vassaur-Taylor, both of Fayetteville, are co-founders of Conduit for Commerce and Conduit for Action, groups that aided opponents of the private option.
"While we congratulate the winners, we are very proud of the candidates we supported. Unlike their opponents, our candidates took solid conservative positions backed by facts," Vassaur-Taylor said. "We are disappointed that Gov. Hutchinson apparently plans to anchor our entire state budget on growing a welfare program."
The Conduit groups squared off against Hutchinson, who endorsed and supported lawmakers open to backing his proposed Arkansas Works. Hutchinson wants to revise the private-option program to charge premiums of about $19 a month to adults with incomes of at least the poverty level; refer unemployed, able-bodied enrollees to job-training programs; and use Medicaid funds to subsidize job-based coverage for those who are employed.
In the House, Hutchinson supported Rep. James Sturch over Phillip Finch (both of Batesville); Rep. Rebecca Petty over former Rep. Debra Hobbs (both of Rogers); Rep. Sue Scott of Rogers over Austin McCollum of Bentonville; Chris Steplock of Greenbrier over Rep. Josh Miller of Heber Springs; and Rep. Jana Della Rosa of Rogers over former Rep. Randy Alexander of Rogers and Jana Starr of Springdale.
In the Senate, he favored Rep. Lance Eads over Washington County Justice of the Peace Sharon Lloyd (both are of Springdale); Sen. Eddie Joe Williams over Lonoke County Justice of the Peace R.D. Hopper (both of Cabot); and Sen. Jane English over Rep. Donnie Copeland (both of North Little Rock).
Hutchinson even called a news conference in February and sought to disconnect Arkansas Works from Obamacare.
By late Tuesday, it was clear that Hutchinson was mostly victorious. Six of the eight candidates Hutchinson backed -- Sturch, Petty, Della Rosa, Eads, Williams and English -- defeated their opponents.
"The victory is not about me; but I think everybody in this room knows that if those three state senators had lost their race, it would not be a pleasant day for me in this room," Hutchinson said at the luncheon.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said he was glad Eads and Williams were elected to the Senate (neither has a general election opponent) and that English would advance to the general election. Nevertheless, he said the election was no mandate on Arkansas Works.
"I do think it speaks to the fact that voters trust the governor and his plan in regard to Arkansas Works," Dismang said. "The governor is popular with voters, and I don't think that you could discount his involvement in those campaigns."
And on Wednesday, House Minority Leader Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, said Hutchinson should back candidates in all parties who back his plan.
"Frankly, from my point of view, I would love to see the governor stand behind all candidates that support [the Medicaid expansion], including those of us Democrats who have opponents in November," he said.
But two candidates Hutchinson supported -- Steplock, a political newcomer, and Scott, who ran afoul of the National Rifle Association -- lost their primaries.
Gillam said the NRA's endorsement of McCollum was baffling.
"Sue Scott, her freshman term, carried open-carry legislation. I mean she was a stalwart for the NRA. For them to turn their back on her and support somebody [else] -- that really weakens the value of their endorsement and the value of their opinion when they come down here to testify," Gillam said.
Scott did not immediately return a request for comment.
In an interview, McCollum said he questioned a "no" vote by Scott on a bill to permit university professors to carry a concealed weapon. He noted that Scott voted for a bill that gave universities the choice to allow concealed carry.
"I think the NRA looks at how you are today, not what you did in the past -- if you're going to be relevant moving forward," he said. "She also had a very interesting stance on open carry. She said she supports open carry if you have a license or some type of permit, which isn't really open carry."
The Medicaid expansion did not dominate the campaign, McCollum said.
The outcome in the Scott-McCollum race was uncommon among the governor's picks. Della Rosa, who faced Alexander and Starr in a three-way primary, received 64 percent of the vote.
On Tuesday night, she attended an election party with Eads and others at her mother's house. Reached Wednesday morning, she said she was making pancakes for her children.
"I can tell you, the people of District 90 are sick and tired of mail. I'm sick of it. There were over 30 different pieces of mail that dropped with my name on it -- not talking about my opponent -- me. They are sick to death of it." she said. "I had people ask me if they can get off my mailing list. I said it wouldn't help because it's not me sending the mail."
The governor's endorsement -- plus a recorded robocall -- made a difference when faced by the onslaught of mail from outside groups, she said.
"This was not just Asa endorsing people," she said. This was a war between two. This was Asa Hutchinson versus Joe Maynard. That's what this was. Everybody who Joe put money behind, Asa came out against."
The race was not about the private option -- except that Maynard is against the private option, she said.
On Wednesday, Alexander said the private option is still the most important issue facing lawmakers. He said he did not coordinate with Conduit for Action or Americans for Prosperity.
Real estate mogul Donald Trump won the presidential race in Arkansas because voters are "disgusted" with Republicans, Alexander said.
"I think that could happen on the state level," he said. "If we stay with Arkansas Works and we continue to have the discussion that we've been having with the private option, I think there's going to be a reckoning."
In an email, Americans for Prosperity said the fight over the Medicaid expansion is not over.
"It's imperative now more than ever that we bring Arkansas' failed experiment with Obamacare's Medicaid expansion to an end," said David Ray, state director for the national group. "Lawmakers can expect a robust effort by the grassroots to steer them away from expanding Medicaid and placing Arkansas on a path to fiscal ruin."
Metro on 03/03/2016
Print Headline: Governor says vote buoys his Medicaid plan