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To Lieutenant Governor Griffin, Speaker Gillam, President Pro Tempore Dismang, honorable members of the Arkansas General Assembly…
When it comes to the art of government and politics, there are a few things that are certain. In fact, until yesterday, it was not certain as to the specific items to be placed on the call of this extraordinary session of the General Assembly. But I can say, and I hope that you’ll agree, that there’s some things that we can say with certainty today. And that is, it’s a blessing to live in the State of Arkansas.
We have 38,000 more people employed today than the last time I addressed a joint session. We have an unemployment rate that is the lowest in decades. From a state budget standpoint, our revenues exceed projections. The private sector is growing at a faster pace than the government sector. And we have a modest budget surplus to set aside for highways, Rainy Day funds, economic development and other critical needs. Yes, the state of the State of Arkansas is strong.
But there is always more work to be done, and that is the reason that we are here today. First, let me say something about the relationship between the legislative branch and the executive branch. What was the design of the founding fathers? The design of the founding fathers is that we keep an eye on each other. And let me assure you, you all are doing a good job.
Some call it a check and balance, separate but equal branches of government. And there should always be some natural tension between the branches of government. Some disagreement, as someone famously said, disagreement is the lifeblood of democracy.
But I’m proud of our working relationship, our friendship and our mutual goal of serving the State of Arkansas. And the willingness to yield our personal political interests to accomplish things that are higher, and those things that are greater.
There are always watershed moments in the flow of our democracy and government in this state. There was the Lakeview Supreme Court decision that required adequate funding of all of our education. It resulted in an extraordinary session of the legislature to address it. The General Assembly responded. There was the challenge with the teacher’s health insurance. An extraordinary session of the legislature was called. The General Assembly responded.
This is one of those moments in history. Where your decision will impact our communities, our economy, our balanced budget, our healthcare system, and most importantly, the lives of thousands of real people that reside in each of your districts.
It is about the lady in West Memphis who works full-time at a sandwich shop and has a four- year-old daughter and is seven months pregnant. She has health coverage, doesn’t go to the doctor a lot, but she has peace of mind because she has pre-natal care and health coverage that is otherwise not available.
It’s about the 60-year-old gentleman in Jonesboro who has been a self-employed painter and handyman for more than 40 years. He had heart problems, slowed his work capability down. He could not afford health insurance. He got health insurance because he made less than the federal poverty level. He said, “I’ve never asked for help.” And he didn’t want to be one of those guys that asked the government for help. But he says he would have died without this health coverage.
These stories remind us of our responsibility. We serve people, not causes. We serve one agenda, and that is the agenda of the people of Arkansas.
Some people have accused me of being pragmatic. To me, it is nothing more than fulfilling the admonition of scripture in the book of Isaiah that says, “Come now, and let us reason together.” That is a necessary part of solving problems.
As you know, I initially preferred two bills for this special session of the legislature. But I yielded to the wisdom of the legislature after we reasoned together. If I was in charge of healthcare in the United States, guess what? I would have designed a different system. Many of you in this audience would have designed a different system of healthcare delivery in the United States. But we are limited by what we inherit. I inherited a system that I did not design, that I have to live with and govern by. And have to make the best decisions for Arkansas. I am trying to do that, and I know that you are trying to do that as well.
There is one key bill on this agenda: Arkansas Works. I want to thank Senator Jim Hendren, Representative Collins and all the members of the legislative task force for their diligent work over the past year to recommend the best course for Arkansas’s future. As you know, based upon the law that you enacted, the Private Option ends December 31, 2016. That’s an active law.
And so, we are here today in this special session to resolve the future, to plan the future and I have presented it in the forms of Arkansas Works, based upon the work of the legislative task force.
It continues the coverage for about 250,000 Arkansans, but it provides reform in four key areas. First of all, it provides a greater emphasis on work opportunities for Arkansans, helping them to move up the economic ladder. It provides requirements for more personal investments in healthcare for those that are above 100 percent of the federal poverty level. It has more emphasis and opportunity for employer-based insurance. And it has some cost-saving measures or fiscal responsibility as well.
Some say these reforms go too far, and some say I did not push hard enough for more reform. Well the criticism from both sides is some indication that we might have it about right. It is some indication that we’ve actually reasoned together and that we have come together for a common solution.
And as is my custom in these type of gatherings, I wanted to read something from a recent correspondence from my favorite pen-pal, Secretary Sylvia Burwell. And I talked to her earlier in the week, and she has sent me this letter dated April 5, 2016. And she addresses and discusses in this letter what she can do, what she can’t do and the restrictions under the law, and responds to what we have proposed in terms of waivers to accomplish the four reforms of Arkansas Works.
She says specifically, “I appreciate our discussions and the four major goals you’ve identified for Arkansas Works: incentivizing work, increasing personal responsibility, enhancing program integrity and supporting employer-based insurance coverage. In each of these areas, I look forward to continuing our discussions to find acceptable approaches that maintain coverage and access for Medicaid beneficiaries and are consistent with federal law.”
“You emphasized the importance of supporting employers participating in the Arkansas Works program to promote and strengthen employer-sponsored insurance. H.H.S. is committed to working with you and your staff to find a workable approach to support small employers who participate in the Arkansas Works’ ESI Premium Assistance Program, consistent with federal requirements.”
I consider all of that good news, an indication that they will look favorably on waiver requests that we present, as they’ve already had an opportunity to review those and work with the DHS staff.
She goes on to say though, because we push further, “However, as we’ve previously discussed, some of your proposals are neither allowable under federal Medicaid law, nor consistent with the purposes of the program. In particular, one potential reform under discussion in your state requiring an asset test for newly-eligible population is not allowable under statute. Further, consistent with the purpose of the Medicaid program, we cannot approve a work requirement.”
“We can, however, support referrals to programs that can help applicants increase their connection to the workforce and improve their economic outcomes; goals that we support. To that end, I remain committed to working with you to discuss options to make job training and employment more available for Arkansas Works participants.”
And that’s all the letter I will read. Mr. Speaker, Mr. President, if I may submit that as part of the record. I would appreciate having that letter as part of the presentation today.
And so, that response is good, but it reminds us of the urgency of the moment. We must act now in order to have authority to pursue the federal waivers and have them enacted and put the program into place by the end of the year. It starts with the people’s House. Your action, your approval, your direction and your mandate.
Let me conclude by coming back to Arkansas. Arkansas is a special place. It is unique in geography – wonderful place – it is unique in geography, but it is also special because of its people. And I believe Arkansas stands apart from other places because of the traditions in government.
We work to find a common solution. Regardless of party, despite differences, very few states can say that. Let’s keep Arkansas that special place, where government works and where we reason together. Thank you, and God bless Arkansas and the United States of America.