Gov. Mike Beebe (D) delivered his final regular session speech to the Arkansas General Assembly promising bipartisan cooperation and an emphasis on education, economic development and health care.
Speaking to a joint session of the Arkansas House and Senate, Beebe said this session, while historic, may not be out of the ordinary.
“Something tells me that this General Assembly will not be that different for either of us,” said Beebe referencing the historic gains of Republicans who hold majorities in both chambers.
“Our job is to show that we are up to the task,” he said. “We must resolve not to let Washington [D.C.] animosity seep in and poison our well in Arkansas.”
“Men and women with differing views can still come together in the best interest of our citizens,” Beebe said to a standing ovation.
Republican legislators were cool to some Beebe policy specifics.
When Beebe noted that Education Week had ranked the state No. 5 in its recent education rankings, Democrats applauded and GOP members did not. While the state’s policies have scored high in the education report for a second straight year, the study has ranked Arkansas low in student achievement.
Beebe said he wanted to further reduce the grocery tax to its lowest possible level, but he acknowledged that current tax revenues and other funding priorities might require a trigger mechanism for the relief.
“This being my last regular session there is an urge to finish the job now,” he said.
He added that he wanted to plan for the grocery tax repeal and use potential desegregation funding payments – around $70 million annually – should the courts allow the state out its obligation.
On Medicaid, the Governor said that the funding gap was narrowing and he promised revised estimates in the near future. He said Medicaid growth was the slowest it has been in 25 years thanks in part to his payment reform initiatives.
Improvements in Arkansas wages has reduced the state’s share of federal funding related to Medicaid from a 75-25% ratio to 70-30%. Each percentage point reduction in that formula results in $50 million less federal money to the state.
He warned that waste, fraud and abuse would not close the funding gap, but he did predict that the improvement in the Medicaid program situation would eliminate his proposed cuts to nursing home level 3 care funding.
“The last thing we will ever do is throw folks out of nursing homes,” said Beebe who had proposed nursing home cuts in his November budget.
Beebe also replayed his major arguments for expanding Medicaid. He said that expanding Medicaid with the help of federal funding would help the working poor, support small business growth and save rural hospitals.
Other items proposed by Beebe:
• Increase in school funding;
• Increased educational and work opportunities for military families;
• Funding restoration for the Forestry Commission;
• More money for corrections;
• A modest increase in funding for higher education; and,
• A 2% COLA for state employees.
“We can do things together as Republicans and Democrats,” Beebe said. “I don’t just defer to you, I honor you.”