- Associated Press - Saturday, December 26, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A Medicaid expansion plan providing coverage to thousands remains in a precarious position. A push to close to the highway funding gap faces challenges from both the right and left. Races for what are supposed to be non-partisan seats on the state Supreme Court are shaded by the state’s politics and fights over social issues.

The faces may have changed in Arkansas as Republicans took office after completing their sweep of statewide and federal offices. But the challenges the state faces haven’t changed much.

As 2015 comes to an end, here’s a look at the issues and challenges that are likely to dominate Arkansas’ politics in the coming year:

-MEDICAID: Gov. Asa Hutchinson is set to begin his second year in office trying to negotiate changes to the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion. With a legislative task force’s initial endorsement, Hutchinson hopes to rename the expansion and impose new restrictions such as an asset test and premiums for some beneficiaries. If he can win support from the federal government for the changes, he faces another uphill battle in the Legislature. Republicans remain sharply divided over the Medicaid expansion, while Democrats are wary of the new restrictions. Hutchinson plans to call a special session in the spring, after a March 1 primary that will likely feature several high profile Republican contests focusing on the expansion’s future.

-HIGHWAYS: Hutchinson also faces a potential fight over how to close the growing funding gap for the state’s highways. A task force he formed this year offered a “menu” of options for boosting road funding, but none are likely to easily win consensus. (Arkansas highway officials say they have $20.4 billion in needs over the next decade, but expect only $3.6 billion in state and federal funding.) Health and education advocates oppose the task force’s proposal to tap into general revenue for highways, while conservative groups are already opposing any efforts to raise taxes. Hutchinson has said he’ll issue his own recommendations sometime in January, and hasn’t ruled out the possibility of a special session on the issue next year.

-SUPREME COURT: The new year will put a fresh spotlight on the state Supreme Court, which has been in the midst of an unusually public split over its handling of the state gay marriage case. The March 1 primary will feature two contested races for seats on the court, with Justice Courtney Goodson running against Circuit Judge Dan Kemp for chief justice. Goodson has already signaled she’s willing to take advantage of the state’s political shift, with an announcement where she touted her “conservative values.” Kemp for his part has signaled he’ll make ethics a key issue in the race in the wake of former Judge Mike Maggio pleading guilty to reducing a verdict against a nursing home in exchange for campaign contributions.

-U.S. SENATE RACE: Next year’s election will also be a major test for the state Democratic Party’s efforts to rebuild after being routed in 2014. A key part of that is former federal prosecutor Conner Eldridge’s long-shot bid to unseat Republican U.S. Sen. John Boozman. Eldridge is sticking to Arkansas Democrats’ traditional playbook by distancing himself from President Barack Obama on key issues such as the Iran deal and the acceptance of Syrian refugees. Eldridge has demonstrated he can raise money, but the question he faces is whether he can distinguish himself from Boozman and win voters over in a now-solidly Republican state. Boozman also will have to fend off a primary challenge in March from Curtis Coleman, a North Little Rock businessman who’s run twice unsuccessfully for statewide office.

-PRESIDENTIAL POLITICS: Lawmakers’ decision to move the state’s primary up from May to March has already paid off in terms of attracting more presidential hopefuls to the state. Aside from the state’s home turf favorites - former Gov. Mike Huckabee and former first lady Hillary Clinton - the earlier primary has drawn billionaire Donald Trump, Texas U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson and several others to Arkansas. The question remaining now is whether joining the “SEC primary” will help boost voter turnout and give the state a higher profile in the presidential nominating contest.


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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