UPDATE Senate completes approval of health care expansion pact


LITTLE ROCK — The Senate on Thursday passed and sent to Gov. Mike Beebe the final piece of a legislative package encompassing Arkansas’ alternative to Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act.

The House rejected a proposed 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment for judges and prosecuting attorneys, and chose to extend the session into next week.

Without discussion, the Senate concurred in a House amendment to Senate Bill 1020, enabling legislation for the so-called private option plan to use Medicaid funding to subsidize private health insurance for as many as 250,000 working Arkansans who don’t earn enough to pay for coverage on their own.

The Senate then passed the bill 27-5 and sent it to the governor. Late Wednesday, the House gave final legislative approval to an identical House bill and the Senate did the same for House Bill 1219, which authorizes the state to use Medicaid dollars to fund the private option.

The amendment that the House and Senate tacked onto the enabling legislation was intended to firm up provisions stating that the plan would not go into effect unless the federal government fulfills all of its obligations to the state under the proposal, and that Arkansas businesses would not be penalized for employees earning up to 138 percent of the poverty level who obtain private insurance through a state insurance exchange instead of through their employer.

The stipulations secured the three-fourths majority vote in the Senate required for approval of the funding bill.

Also approved Thursday by the Senate was HB 1508 by Rep. Mark Biviano, R-Searcy, which would create a nonprofit entity with authority over the state health insurance exchange. The bill passed 27-5 and goes to the governor.

Under the bill, the nonprofit entity would be governed by a board that would consist of the state insurance commissioner, the director of the state Department of Human Services, three people appointed by the governor, three people appointed by the House speaker and three people appointed by the Senate president pro tem.

The Senate approved, 19-4, House Bill 1922 by Rep. John Edwards, D-Little Rock, designed to put oil companies on notice to steer clear of public water supplies when building new pipelines in Arkansas.

Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, who presented the bill in the Senate, said the measure would not impose any new restrictions on operators of petroleum pipelines, but it would encourage them not to build a pipeline within the watershed of a public surface water supply.

“This is a risk mitigation plan for areas within a watershed,” Sanders said. “It would be statewide, voluntary.”

Under the bill, if a pipeline crosses a water course that empties into a public surface water supply, the operators are encouraged to install a cut-off valve and prepare a risk mitigation plan and a plan for responding to spills.

The measure is in response to the March 29 rupture of ExxonMobile’s Pegasus pipeline in Mayflower.

The House later concurred in Senate amendments to the bill, which now goes to the governor.

HB 1878 by Rep. Henry “Hank” Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff, which would grant the state Human Services Department’s Division of Youth Services immunity from certain claims filed with the Arkansas Claims Commission, passed the Senate 25-7. The bill now goes to the governor.

Sen. Bobby Pierce, D-Sheridan, who presented the bill on the Senate floor, said the measure would exempt from Claims Commission review acts committed by juvenile offenders while they’re in custody or after they have been released. he said the bill would give DYS the same exemption that the Department of Community Correction and the Department of Correction already have for inmates who have been released.

The Claims Commission last year awarded a $1.5 million to the family of a man who was killed by a 16-year-old who had been released earlier from DYS custody. The Legislative Claims Review Committee, after a hearing earlier this year, reduced the award to $500,000.

Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, spoke against the bill, saying it’s already difficult for someone to file and win a claim before the Claims Commission.

“All (DYS) has to do now to avoid any claims is to follow their procedures,” Hutchinson said, adding the division should be held accountable for any procedural violations or other problems.

In the House, a bill to give a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment to judges and prosecuting attorneys failed two attempts to pass it.

Rep. Randy Alexander, R-Fayetteville, spoke in opposition to SB 365 by Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville. saying, “It seems to me that these are very well paid judges.”

The bill received 65 “yes” votes and nine “no” votes, failing to receive the 75 votes needed to pass an appropriation bill in the House. A later attempt to pass the bill garnered a vote of 76-1, but members asked to sound ballot, a procedure in which members must be in their seats for their votes to be counted. The resulting vote was 74-1, so the bill failed again.

House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, told reporters later he supports the COLA for judges and prosecuting attorneys, noting that the budget for the next fiscal year includes a 2 percent COLA for state employees. He said the bill would be considered again Friday.

In a 51-17 vote, the House narrowly approved HB 2004 by Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, which would require an employer to pay all wages due to a fired employee within seven days of termination. If the wages are not fully paid within that time, the employee would be entitled to continued wages for every day that the wages go unpaid, up to 60 days. The bill goes to the Senate.

The House voted 81-0 to approve SB 794 by Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, which would require legislative review of any annexation or consolidation of school districts by the state Board of Education. The bill goes to the governor.

In a 62-3 vote, the House approved SB 720 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, which would create a procedure for removing a member of the state Board of Election Commissioners for misconduct. The bill goes to the governor.

The House also concurred in Senate amendments to several House bills and sent them to the governor. Among them were:

—HB 1993 by Rep. Nate Steel, D-Nashville, which would allow juveniles who are convicted of capital murder to be sentenced to life with a possibility of parole after they have served 28 years in prison. The bill is a response to U.S. Supreme Court rulings that death sentences and mandatory sentences of life without parole are unconstitutional when applied to people under 18.

—HB 1398 by Leding, which would ban the sale of electronic cigarettes to a person under 18.

—HB 1789 by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, which would allow home-schooled students to participate in interscholastic activities.

—HB 1017 by Rep. Denny Altes, R-Fort Smith, which would allow school districts to adopt curriculum standards for academic study of the Bible.

The regular business of the session was scheduled to end Friday, but Carter announced that completing the budget process would require more time. He asked members to vote on whether to work on the weekend or on Monday and Tuesday, and they chose the latter option.