Minority Leader Gray on Medicaid budget maneuver: Democrats will "continue this discussion" and "remember the ultimate goal" | Arkansas Blog

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Minority Leader Gray on Medicaid budget maneuver: Democrats will "continue this discussion" and "remember the ultimate goal"

Posted By on Sat, Apr 16, 2016 at 12:23 PM

GRAY: "We’re not going to stand on some ideological soapbox and not be reasonable."
  • GRAY: "We’re not going to stand on some ideological soapbox and not be reasonable."
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has a procedural scheme to fund the Medicaid budget and continue the private option, but he can't do it without the backing of the Democrats. 

Democrats balked at the move last week, but some may be open to considering the approach when the fiscal session reconvenes next week. 

"I think there is room to continue this discussion," Minority Leader Michael John Gray said. "Democrats do the reasonable thing. We’re not going to stand on some ideological soapbox and not be reasonable. We want to see a bipartisan solution." 

Hutchinson's proposal, which he shared with legislators on Thursday, is to allow the Medicaid appropriation to pass with a dummy amendment that would end "Arkansas Works," the governor's plan to continue the private option Medicaid expansion. Hutchinson would then use his line item veto authority to nix the amendment. The Medicaid budget would pass and the private option would continue to provide health insurance for more than 267,000 low-income Arkansans. A handful of the Tea Party Ten currently threatening to shut down the Medicaid program have agreed to cave and let this process play out.

Hutchinson's legislative allies tried to run the maneuver in the Joint Budget Committee on Thursday afternoon. However, the scheme only works if the coalition supporting "Arkansas Works" agrees to the dummy amendment that pretends to end the policy. Democrats were given only a few hours to make a decision before the convoluted scheme and were unwilling to play along. Many felt uncomfortable casting a technical vote against the Medicaid expansion, some expressed frustration that they were being asked to bail out the Ten, and some worried about whether the maneuver would run into legal trouble or set a bad precedent. They voted down the amendment, along with a few of the Ten still holding out for the shutdown threat. Joint Budget is expected to take it up again Tuesday. Will Democrats go along with the governor's line-item scheme? 

Minority Leader Michael John Gray, who first learned about the strategy from media reports, met with the governor late in the morning on Thursday.

“My initial reaction was looking at it from the [perspective of the] Ten, and I thought, ‘wow, I could see how this gets them out of a bind,’” Gray said. But then he thought big picture: “My mind has been programmed over the last few months to remember what the ultimate goal is. Don’t get caught up in the politics or the posturing. Remember that the ultimate goal is the lives of Arkansans that are effected – the families and communities.”

“So my immediate reaction was, think about the end result," Gray said. "Don’t think about the making of the sausage." 

But it’s complicated, Gray said. Emotions on this issue run high, and Democrats have been in a political hornet’s nest.

"You have to remember that the caucus is a majority of people who got beat up over this in the last session," Gray said. "They have owned the private option, they have stood up for it, they have taken countless votes for it. There was just some raw emotion." 

The rushed timeline and the lack of notice didn't help, Gray said. 

"Unfortunately urgency was creating an emergency that we didn’t have," he said. "I don’t think anybody wants us to start making policy moves in an hour." 

The governor has said that the plan had to be kept under wraps so it didn't distract from the effort to get the votes the old fashioned way. He didn't want to telegraph this alternative while he was still trying to get the Ten to vote for the unamended Medicaid appropriation. Meanwhile, some pro-private option lawmakers on Thursday argued for moving ahead quickly because they had the votes they needed from the Tea Party Ten. Waiting four days or longer could change that as anti-PO advocacy groups put the pressure on the Ten not to surrender to the governor's line-item plan. 

"I respect the tightrope that was having to be walked there," Gray said. "I think it might have been helpful to have some idea that this was going so we could help inoculate our members [because] the whole thing is going to be about messaging."
Gray said that working to ensure buy-in from the full coalition behind “Arkansas Works” has been an issue for the governor’s office in the past. “Some more communication from the governor’s office to the legislative branch is not necessarily a bad thing,” Gray said. “If Democrats are going to carry the water for reasonable legislation than we’d love to help join the governor in some of those conversations. If you need Democrats to help validate this, Democrats have to be a part of it. ”

That said, Gray said that things are improving on this front. “In recent days, we’ve seen an extremely marked effort by the governor’s office to reach out to the [Democratic] leadership team and bring us in,” Gray said. “As of late, I’ve felt a lot more openness and cooperation from the governor’s office.”

Gray said that when the caucus first heard about the line-item plan on Thursday, reactions “ran the gamut.” Some wanted to proceed with the plan, some were vehemently opposed, some simply wanted more time. "While there was discussion, there was no tension," Gray said. Even among those who liked the idea, he said, "there was absolutely understanding of why others are in a position to be reticent about it. Everyone respected that."  

I asked Gray for his own feelings on the line-item plan. 

“I’m open to the concept," he said. "However, I have some reluctance to set the precedent that you can throw a fit, stomp your foot, stand on what you say are principles, and ultimately the conscientious minority will have to bail you out.”

I pressed Gray a bit on this point. The line-item-veto strategy that Hutchinson is proposing doesn’t actually bail the Tea Party Ten out. The strategy gives them absolutely no policy concessions. They get a show vote that is utterly meaningless, as everyone involved knows. They fail completely in their stated goals. It represents total surrender by the Tea Party Ten, a humiliating white flag, an ignominious defeat. If you don’t believe me, note the advocacy groups and activists working overtime to convince the Tea Party Ten not to take the deal. Do you think someone like Sen. Blake Johnson won’t be primaried by Conduit for Action just because of the phony cover that Hutchinson is offering? Or course he will – they recognize this as the surrender that it is.

Gray admitted as much. “If they’re willing to take the show vote now that it’s fully in the light of day, it’s not as much of a bailout as it would first appear,” he said. 

I suggested that this line-item-veto strategy was giving them nothing and that (unless the Ten miraculously sees the light on their own) any alternative offer or deal to get them to flip votes the old fashioned way would likely be much, much worse. 

"That's a fair characterization," Gray said. "I think we just have to understand that the comment about Democrats 'bailing them out' or 'giving them something' is more along the lines of: We need some space to do what Democrats have always done here, and we got punished for it last time. And that's doing the reasonable thing, the right thing, the responsible thing for the working families, for the single moms, for the people in the district we represent. We got punished for it and we are seeing a legislative agenda that is not necessarily reflective of the values or the people that sent us down here to represent them. We have to be real careful in how we get to those end goals. We cannot sacrifice the people we represent or their values or their well being out of fear. It’s that fine line: Democrats are always the reasonable, responsible people in the room and we’re just trying to find the space to balance that."  

I asked Gray what the governor needed to do in order to get buy-in from Democrats for his line-item-veto strategy. 

"I think that to get buy-in from Arkansas, we need some pretty clear language that this is going to survive any kind of legal challenge," Gray said. "I think that’s the most prudent thing. Past that, I think the governor has a big chore in messaging to the voters of Arkansas: that their representative or senator, while on paper had to do some finagling, had their best interests at heart. With the exception of about ten we’ve all named lately." 

Support for special health care reporting made possible by the Arkansas Public Policy Panel. 

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