- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 20, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - The Arkansas Senate approved a plan Wednesday allowing Gov. Asa Hutchinson to continue the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion despite lawmakers voting to end it, though opponents warned the tactic opens the door for lawsuits.

The Medicaid budget bill was approved by a 27-2 vote and includes a provision for a Dec. 31 end for the program, which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor. Five senators voted “present,” which has the same effect as voting no. Hutchinson, a Republican, has promised to veto the provision if the bill is approved by the House on Thursday.

Hutchinson and legislative leaders advocated the unusual parliamentary move to break a Senate standoff over the Medicaid budget, which had fallen short of the three-fourths support needed. Two of the 10 Republican opponents of the expansion who had blocked that budget last week voted for Wednesday’s measure, despite Hutchinson’s vow to strike the defunding provision.

“At the end of the day, the numbers just aren’t in our favor and the rules aren’t in our favor,” Republican Sen. Bart Hester said. “Maybe they will be later, but this fight certainly isn’t over for me.”

Senate Democrats agreed to the plan, despite concerns that it meant voting initially to end the program they’ve fought for since it was created in 2013 as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law.

“I would have preferred a less circuitous route, but if the final result is that individuals have health care, you just do what you have to do,” Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield said after the vote.

Several GOP opponents lambasted the line-item veto approach on the Senate floor as well as the expanded coverage, which they argue the state and the federal government can’t afford.

“We are spending this state and our country into financial doom,” said Republican Sen. Bryan King, who voted against the budget bill Wednesday.

Conservative groups have signaled supporting the maneuver could become a campaign issue for GOP lawmakers. Americans for Prosperity, which has targeted lawmakers who have backed the program, said Wednesday it viewed a vote for the Medicaid budget bill as a vote for the hybrid expansion.

House leaders believe there’s enough support to send the measure to Hutchinson’s desk. He’s likely to have more than the simple majority required to uphold his decision to reinstate the program if opponents try to override his veto.

But the fight may not be over that, exactly, as Republican opponents have predicted a legal challenge to what they call an end-run around the budget process that gives the governor too much power.

“It has to be challenged,” Republican Rep. Bob Ballinger said. “We can’t allow the power of the line item veto to completely thwart the legislative process when it comes to appropriations. That’s not what the line-item veto was designed for.”

Hutchinson and legislative leaders have said they believe the line-item veto would withstand a legal challenge. The budget bill, however, includes a provision to ensure that other parts of the Medicaid budget aren’t jeopardized if a court rules otherwise.

“This, of course, is just one step in the overall process, but I am confident that the bipartisan approach that achieved success in the Senate will provide momentum for this strategy for funding Arkansas Works as it heads to the House floor tomorrow,” Hutchinson said in a statement.

The vote appeared to break a budget deadlock in the House, where Democrats had refused to vote for any other budget bills until the Medicaid impasse was resolved. A measure funding expenses for judges and lawmakers that had stalled won House approval shortly before the Senate’s action.

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


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