- Associated Press - Monday, April 18, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson and legislative leaders tried to persuade skeptical Democrats Monday to support a plan to save Arkansas’ hybrid Medicaid expansion by initially voting to defund the subsidized health insurance for thousands of poor people.

Hutchinson promised to defend any Democrats criticized for supporting the defunding measure under the approach, which is aimed at allowing the governor to reinstate the hybrid expansion through a line-item veto. House Democrats said they were looking at ways to ensure the legality of the unusual parliamentary procedure that supporters hoped would break a budget impasse over the program.

“I think this is a unique solution for a unique challenge that we face,” Hutchinson told members of the Legislative Black Caucus.

A Medicaid budget bill funding the expansion has fallen short of the three-fourths vote needed in the Senate for approval. The backup plan calls for adding a provision to the Medicaid budget that would defund the hybrid expansion, which uses federal funds to purchase private funds for low-income residents. If the Legislature approves the revised budget measure, Hutchinson has promised to veto the defunding provision. That would allow the Legislature to effectively fund the program by upholding the governor’s veto, which requires a simple majority.

The Legislature is set to reconvene Tuesday after lawmakers deadlocked last week over efforts to resolve the budget standoff. Hutchinson told the caucus that three of the 10 Senate Republicans opposed to the expansions have told him they’ll vote for the Medicaid budget with the defunding provision, despite Hutchinson’s promise to reinstate the funding. Nearly all Democrats in the Legislature would need to support the Medicaid budget with the defunding provision for the proposal to reach Hutchinson’s desk.

But Democrats are wary of voting to defund a program they’ve fought for based on the assurances of a rival party governor that he’ll save it. Democrats have said they’re worried how such a seemingly contradictory vote would be portrayed.

“The message needs to be there that Democrats are not voting against Arkansas Works,” said Democratic Sen. Joyce Elliott, referring to the hybrid expansion.

Hutchinson promised to defend Democrats if they’re accused of not supporting the program by going along with the backup plan.

“Truth is important, and if that is ever misrepresented, I’m happy to make sure that I’m a voice for an accurate record on your intentions and your consistency in support of Medicaid expansion in Arkansas and being an advocate for that, for your constituents,” Hutchinson said.

Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield, who voted against the line-item veto plan last week, said she was leaning toward supporting the approach after Hutchinson’s assurances.

“Ultimately what we’re concerned about is that 267,000 folks have health insurance,” said Chesterfield, who chairs the black caucus.

The health insurance program has sharply divided Republicans who control both chambers of the Legislature since it was created in 2013 as alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health care law.

House Democrats didn’t commit to supporting the plan, but said they were looking at potential changes to the defunding provision to address concerns about the legality of the line-item veto approach.

“At the end of the day, we want to make sure this thing gets done. But we want to make sure it gets done in a reasonable, responsible way that is legal and that is above board and that can be embraced by both sides of the aisle,” House Minority Leader Michael John Gray, a Democrat from Augusta, told reporters.


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

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