- Associated Press - Saturday, January 2, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A task force assigned to study the future of Arkansas’ Medicaid expansion endorses the governor’s push for changes but stops short of specifying which reforms it supports. A panel studying highway funding offers a “menu” of options but doesn’t pick which ones are best to close a growing shortfall. Another group looking at Common Core says the state needs more time to review the controversial set of education standards.

It seems the only thing longer than the list of task forces, working groups and other panels studying Arkansas’ trickiest issues from last year is the list of unfinished business they have left for 2016.

A hallmark of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s first year in office has been the creation of panels to work on what he’s called Arkansas solutions to challenges that dozens of states are facing. It’s an approach that’s bought him time on some of the most divisive issues, but the new year will likely be a time of reckoning for the Republican governor.

The first will come this month, as Hutchinson heads to Washington to begin negotiating changes to the state’s “private option” Medicaid expansion. Crafted as an alternative to expanding Medicaid under the federal health law, the program uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for more than 200,000 people.

Hutchinson wants to rebrand the program as “Arkansas Works” and add new limits such as a workforce training referral requirement, premiums for some people on the program and an asset test. They’re the types of changes Hutchinson needs to win over fellow Republicans who came into office vowing to fight the law they deride as “Obamacare,” but they’re also likely to face resistance from Democrats as well as the Obama administration.

The bigger hurdle may come from the task force’s next task: finding the $50 million to $60 million in state cuts to Medicaid that Hutchinson says will be needed once Arkansas begins to pay for its share of the expanded coverage. Lawmakers on the panel are set to begin discussing ways to find those savings this month, with a fight likely coming over whether to hand over part of the state’s Medicaid program to private companies to manage.

Hutchinson will also have to thread the needle on highway funding as he prepares to announce his proposals to raise more money for the state’s roads. The working group Hutchinson formed on the issue offered several ways to close the funding gap - including various tax increases and a plan to shift some general revenue to roads - but didn’t endorse a specific approach.

The political reality Hutchinson told the working group to keep in mind is one he’ll now have to confront. He faces potential resistance from Republican lawmakers who vowed to not raise taxes and pushback from Democrats who have traditionally opposed efforts to tap into general revenue.

The new year will also include a review of the Common Core education standards that have been criticized by some conservatives. A task force Hutchinson formed said the state should continue using Common Core but conduct a broader look at where to change and replace the standards. Hutchinson has said the Board of Education should look at renaming Common Core as it reviews and revises the standards.

The challenges won’t end with those issues. Hutchinson has asked a legislative task force to look at potential changes to the state’s sentencing guidelines as the state continues to grapple with prison overcrowding. And although neither is a task force, Hutchinson has ordered two reviews of efficiency in state government - with Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin leading a review of the state Department of Human Services and the nonprofit Arkansas Policy Foundation looking at other state agencies.

The reviews mean 2016 could end with an even longer to-do list.


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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