LITTLE ROCK – When the legislature passed a balanced budget law for next year, it signaled the successful completion of the 2018 fiscal session.
A few minor details were left to be finished, and official adjournment was scheduled for March 12. The governor planned to call a special session the following day, for lawmakers to work on a problem faced by local pharmacies whose reimbursements have dropped sharply since the beginning of the year.
The most dramatic moments of the fiscal session occurred when the Senate took up an appropriation bill for the Division of Economic and Medical Services. It administers Medicaid and the expansion of Medicaid known as Arkansas Works, which has generated controversy and heated debate in every legislative session since 2013.
Passage of an appropriation bill requires a supermajority of 75 percent, which means it needs 27 votes in the 35-member Senate. The funding bill for Medicaid passed without a vote to spare on a vote of 27-to-2. In the House of Representatives the vote was 79-to-15.
The federal government provides the bulk of funding for Medicaid, therefore any changes in eligibility and in services covered must be approved by federal officials. At the beginning of the week the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that the federal government will allow Arkansas to impose a work requirement for some recipients who are younger than 49 and are able-bodied.
If they do not work 80 hours a month they must volunteer, take job training or continuing adult education to be eligible.
The Division has asked federal officials for permission to begin a cost-saving measure, and is still waiting for a decision. It would permit Arkansas to drop about 60,000 people from the Medicaid expansion rolls, which currently have about 285,000 signed up.
The balanced budget proposed by the governor forecasts growth in state general revenue of about $237 million, bringing the total to about $5.6 billion for the fiscal year that begins June 30. That would be an increase of 4.3 percent. The forecasts for the current fiscal year are for growth of 2 percent.
The bulk of next year’s revenue growth will go to Medicaid – about $138 million. State colleges and universities will receive an additional $12 million, to bring their total state aid to $746 million.
Prisons will get an additional $3.5 million, bringing their total state aid to $353 million. The Public School Fund will increase to $2.2 billion.
In the fall, legislators will begin budget hearings in preparation for the 2019 regular session. Sessions in odd-numbered years are much busier than fiscal sessions in even-numbered years.
In regular sessions in odd-numbered years, lawmakers not only adopt budgets but also consider hundreds of bills affecting criminal and civil law, education standards, environmental quality, tax fairness and the affordability of health care.
During this year’s fiscal session, the legislature voted on 124 Senate bills and 139 House bills. During last year’s regular session we considered 1,280 House bills and 789 Senate bills. The fiscal session lasted 29 days and last year’s regular session lasted 86 days.