- Associated Press - Sunday, March 16, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas’ third-ever fiscal session was dominated by debate about the future of the state’s compromise Medicaid expansion, but that may be nothing compared to the fights that await lawmakers when they return to the Capitol in 2015.

From funding for pre-kindergarten to the condition of the state’s centers for the developmentally disabled, the session that formally ends this week leaves a long list of unfinished business for the Legislature to address next year.

Many of those items were overshadowed by the fight over Arkansas’ “private option” plan to use Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for the poor. Crafted last year as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law, the program was reauthorized for another year after a defunding attempt that stalled most of the session’s other business.

The private option debate and the constraints of the fiscal session offered little room for other issues on the agenda. Non-budget matters such as a proposed delay in the implementation of the Common Core standards and an effort to allow schools to arm non-classroom employees fell far short of the supermajority needed to even get considered during this year’s session.

But the negotiations in the final days of the session on proposals to tap the state’s projected $126 million surplus offered a hint of what needs are on the horizon in next year’s session.

With Gov. Mike Beebe and lawmakers proposing more than $92 million in projects, the Legislature faced the last-minute haggling over the surplus that has typically held up regular sessions in past years. The Legislature eventually whittled that list down to nearly $22 million in projects under an agreement that received final approval and was signed into law by Beebe last week.

The agreement included funds for school broadband, short-term loans for charter schools and reimbursements to jails for housing state inmates, with most of the state’s surplus left untouched for the Legislature to look at next year.

Left off the list was a proposal to tap $2 million from the surplus for the state’s pre-K program, which advocates complain has suffered from a flat funding level over the past several years. The lawmaker calling for the additional funding has said she hoped it would spur lawmakers to look at the issue in next year’s session, saying it would help the state avoid the need for additional prison funding in future years.

“We’re going to fund $9 million or so on the prison pipeline,” Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said. “It’s money we have to spend. I’m not countering that. What I’m asking of you as a body to consider is we are so much better off if we are addressing that pipeline before it’s started, and it’s undisputable pre-K is the way to do that.”

Another proposal left off the surplus agreement was an effort to tap $10 million to pay for improvements at the state’s Human Development Centers. Sen. Jason Rapert, who had called for the additional funding, said he’ll spend the interim between the sessions building support for money for the facilities’ improvements.

“I am committed fully to making sure that they quit getting overlooked,” said Rapert, R-Conway. “We’re going to fund new programs and expand a budget by over $100 million and literally not do anything for the least among those in Arkansas. I feel it’s a dereliction of duty.”

Those programs are likely to compete with other needs, including state prisons and public schools. Lawmakers are also facing warnings that the money they set aside for the teacher insurance program last year won’t be enough to prevent rate hikes next year.

Even without the limits of a fiscal session, the unfinished business from this year’s session could once again be overshadowed by another private option debate next year. It’s a debate that legislative leaders say won’t get any easier.

“There’s essentially no room for error, and I think even some of the people who voted for it this time are very questionable on whether they’ll continue to vote for it,” Senate President Michael Lamoureux said.

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