LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Pushing for the implementation of a federal law that he didn't support and adjusting to a General Assembly controlled by his rival party, Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe may not drive the agenda in his last regular legislative session. The term-limited Democrat seems determined to at least drive the debate.
Beebe used his last State of the State address to urge lawmakers to support expanding the state's Medicaid eligibility under the federal health care law - a measure he once said he would have voted against had he been in Congress.
He did it before a House and Senate now controlled by Republicans who campaigned against the expansion and other parts of the federal overhaul that some derisively call "Obamacare." At the same time, Beebe insisted the Legislature where he served 20 years hadn't changed even after the GOP took it over for the first time in 138 years.
"My instincts tell me that this session will not be that different for either of us," Beebe said.
Beebe's prediction and the vows from the Republican leaders of both chambers to set aside party labels will be put to the test in the coming weeks as lawmakers tackle the proposed Medicaid expansion and a shortfall in the program.
The session is already unlike any other Beebe has faced since taking office in 2007. His push to complete a reduction of the grocery tax - his signature campaign promise - could be overshadowed by the debate over Medicaid expansion. It's an issue that landed in lawmakers' laps after the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the federal health care law. In the same ruling, justices said it was up to states to decide whether to accept the expansion.
At least one of the fights over Medicaid appears easier. Beebe told lawmakers that the expected $138 million shortfall in the state's Medicaid program had become more manageable after costs in the program had seen its slowest growth in 25 years.
Department of Human Services officials say the program's cost to the state so far this fiscal year is $21 million less than expected, which means they'll avoid cuts to nursing home care proposed to help alleviate the deficit. But Beebe warned that the shortfall won't be completely painless.
"There are no easy cuts to make around the margins," he said.
The steeper challenge for Beebe will be the Medicaid expansion, which will require the support of at least 75 House members and 27 senators. It was already a longshot when Democrats controlled both chambers, and Republicans now hold 51 of the 100 House seats and 21 of the 35 Senate seats.
Aware of those odds, Beebe pitched the expansion as a chance to help low-income Arkansans while at the same time helping rural hospitals that have to shoulder the cost of uninsured patients and making the state more attractive to business prospects.
"If we have no insurance options available for our low-income workers, while more and more other states add those options, it will make us less business-friendly in comparison," he said. "Available health care has always been an important component of economic development."
He also pleaded with lawmakers to not use the expansion debate as a way to send Washington a message about federal spending.
"We balance our budgets and we don't need to sacrifice our share of federal money to other states," he said. "Refusing money to help our people may make a statement to the federal government, but it will cost us more at home, will jeopardize the health of our fellow Arkansans and won't solve the problems of our national counterparts."
Beebe's argument may encourage supporters of the expansion who are preparing to aggressively lobby legislators over the issue, but swaying over a skeptical GOP-led General Assembly is another matter.
"I really think there's been no movement," Senate President Michael Lamoureux, a Republican who's held out hope for a compromise on expansion, said after Beebe's speech. "If there is movement, it's going to be based on new information from Washington and committee work."
While Lamoureux and other Republicans are looking to Washington for answers on whether such a compromise is possible, Beebe made it clear he's looking there for a different reason.
"We must resolve to not let Washington's animosity seep in and poison our well of civil discourse," Beebe said. "Arkansas cannot change the way things are done in D.C., but we can continue to set the example of how men and women with differing views can still come together in the best interests of our citizens."
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. He can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo
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