And so it begins...
Having moved to the Natural State in December 2011, this is my first time covering the regular session of the Arkansas General Assembly and let me tell you - WEEK ONE did NOT disappoint!
Before the first bang of the gavel, it was obvious this session would be dominated by Medicaid. First, there is the shortfall (about $300 million). Then there is the question of expansion.
I was fortunate enough to sit down with newly-elected House Speaker Davy Carter and got a feel for how the Republicans would tackle the Medicaid issue. Side note: that's the FIRST time you've heard "Republican" in the same sentence as "Speaker" in 138 years.
In case you missed it...
In short, Republicans want to separate the shortfall from expansion during discussions. On that topic of expansion: though some Republican legislators see some benefits, they're skeptical of the federal government, afraid Washington won't hold up its end of the deal, or worse - those pesky D.C. politicians will change the deal at some point when a balanced budget finally becomes as important to the nation as it is to Arkansas.
Now presenting the Honorable Governor Mike Beebe...
DAY TWO: The State of the State address is always a highlight. Sure, it stinks that you and a ridiculous amount of people are crammed into the House gallery like sardines in a can but the energy is enough to make you forget that throbbing pain in your pinky toe which has been trampled by no fewer than five people.
Agree or disagree with his politics, Gov. Beebe is a remarkable speaker. He engages the crowd and makes you feel as though you're just listening to a pal shooting the breeze. Even Speaker Carter, a Republican, commended the Governor's elocution after the speech saying it reminded him of his own need for improvement. Side note: Speaker Carter is actually a very solid speaker himself, so that really is a big compliment.
Right out of the gate, the Governor hits on the big three: education, taxes and - here's a shocker - Medicaid. Wait...what's this??? The Medicaid deficit is NOT as large as previously expected? The Governor doesn't get specific about the numbers but he has certainly stirred up some intrigue.
Beebe makes a passionate push for expansion. Appealing to both parties, he says he, too, worries about the national debt however, in what was likely the most controversial comment of the day, he went on to say the national debt is NOT in Arkansas' control and cannot be made the state's problem. Therefore, folds shouldn't feel badly about taking the federal money for the health of Arkansas.
Applause from some but, to be honest, the Republicans didn't look convinced. Side note: For more on the governor's Medicaid proposal, watch Scott Inman's interview with Beebe.
Goodbye pomp. Farewell circumstance. Let's get to work...
Wednesday begins the real work of the Arkansas session. A few highlights:
- Big challenges impacting Arkansas youth
- Could this be the beginning of the end for plastic bags?
- It's not as bad as we thought: Beebe's new Medicaid numbers revealed, $60M saved
Friday and Monday, the Capitol is celebrating. Happy Inauguration and Happy MLK Day!