- Associated Press - Monday, January 12, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas lawmakers began the 2015 legislative session Monday, facing questions about the future of the state’s compromise Medicaid expansion and a push by the incoming governor to cut income taxes by $100 million a year.

Members of the House and Senate gathered at the state Capitol for the 90th General Assembly, with leaders vowing to work together after an election where Republicans swept statewide offices and expanded their majority in the Legislature. Republican Asa Hutchinson was set to be sworn in Tuesday as the state’s 46th governor.

“As Arkansas has seen its political landscape change, we have been given a wonderful opportunity to provide stability and strength to shape its future,” House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, told House members.

“We are going to have to provide solutions when others cannot,” Senate President Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said in a speech before his chamber.

The session opened with uncertainty surrounding the future of the “private option,” which uses federal funds to purchase insurance for low-income residents. More than 213,000 people are enrolled in the program, which was crafted as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health overhaul.

Hutchinson has said he’ll announce by the end of the month whether he wants to continue the program. Reauthorizing it requires at least three-fourths support of the House and Senate, a difficult hurdle to clear after several opponents were elected to the Legislature in November.

Supporters of the program have said they’re weighing changes to it, including requiring participants to work and incentives for healthy lifestyle choices, in hopes of winning over some anti-private option lawmakers.

“I’m not hearing near as much ‘we’ve got to do away with it, we’ve got to do away with it,’ but maybe what can we do to make it even more conservative?” said Rep. Kelley Linck, R-Flippin, who chairs the House Public Health Committee.

But several lawmakers said the only changes they’d support are ones that would result in ending the expanded coverage.

“I think it’s bad policy, and I think it’s time we stand up and get rid of bad policy and make good decisions for Arkansans,” said freshman Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Batesville, who ran primarily on a vow to end the program.

The Legislature is also expected to move quickly on Hutchinson’s plan to cut income taxes for the middle class, with Gillam and Dismang co-sponsoring the legislation.

Hutchinson’s suggestion that he may delay tax cuts lawmakers approved last year could face resistance from his own party.

“As long as we can find the money, I’m not for delaying any of the cuts that have been there,” said Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, who chairs the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee.

Rep. Joe Jett, a Democrat who was named Monday to chair the House tax panel, said he wants more details on how Hutchinson plans to pay for the tax cut and would prefer to see the private option addressed first.

“I think it’s very irresponsible to say I’m on board and not know where the numbers are coming from,” Jett said. “Once I figure out where the cuts are going to come from or where we’re going to get the money to pay for them, then if it makes sense then I think you’ll see a lot of my side line up behind it.”

Democrats controlled Arkansas’ Legislature from Reconstruction to 2012.

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Associated Press writer Kelly P. Kissel contributed to this report.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo .

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