LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The incoming president of the Arkansas Senate says he believes lawmakers can find common ground on proposals to expand the state's Medicaid program and cut taxes, despite partisan divisions in the Legislature.
Sen. Michael Lamoureux, the Russellville Republican who will lead the chamber in the 89th General Assembly, said he believes there will still be room for compromise on two of the most contentious fights looming in the Legislature.
Lamoureux, 36, will be the first Republican to lead the chamber in 138 years, after an election where Republicans won a majority in both chambers. He said questions about Medicaid's funding shortfall and the proposal to expand its eligibility under the federal health care law will be the biggest issue facing the Senate in 2013. Lamoureux said it's possible for a deal on Medicaid expansion, even though many Republicans were elected to the Senate on a vow to fight the federal health care law at the state level.
"There are conservative reforms that one side wants that the other side maybe wouldn't support independently, and I think the opposite is true of the other group that would not support expansion independently," Lamoureux said in an interview at the state Capitol recently. "It may be a Pollyanna dream that you could sort of merge those two together and come up with something that both sides can live with, but that's been my goal the whole time in hoping that we can achieve that."
Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe supports expanding Medicaid, but has noted that it'll require the support of three-fourths of the House and Senate. The GOP has a 21-14 edge in the House and holds 51 of the 100 House seats. Beebe has said a Medicaid expansion could help the state avoid cuts in nursing home care that his administration has proposed to help fill a $138 million shortfall in the program.
Lamoureux said he doesn't believe a partial expansion that would add fewer people to the state's rolls than envisioned under the health law is off the table, despite federal officials telling states that they must commit fully to the expansion to receive full federal funding for the first three years.
"We've been told three or four times that there's some looming deadline and if we didn't do this, the sky was going to fall, but we didn't panic and we didn't buckle to that false cry of 'Wolf' and it turned out to be the prudent thing to do," he said.
On tax cuts, Lamoureux said he thinks it's possible to find an agreement on competing proposals from Beebe and Republicans in the House and Senate. Lamoureux said he believes they can find a compromise similar to one made in 2011, when lawmakers approved $35 million in tax cuts.
"What we ended up doing was a mixture of what the Senate wanted to do, a mixture of what the House wanted to do and a mixture of what the governor wanted to do," he said. "I assume it will play out in some similar way. Each chamber's going to have its input."
Lamoureux wouldn't commit to whether he'd back Beebe's proposed cut in the grocery tax, but said he was uneasy about the way the reduction would take effect.
Beebe in November called for reducing the state's grocery tax from 1.5 percent to 0.125 percent. The cut would eliminate all state sales tax on groceries except for a one-eighth cent tax for conservation approved by voters as part of a constitutional amendment.
The tax cut, which officials estimate would cost the state $69 million, would be triggered if obligations in several key areas decline by at least $35 million for six consecutive months. They include payments the state must make to three Little Rock-area school districts as part of a desegregation settlement and some state bond payments. The state has asked a federal judge to end the desegregation payments, which total about $70 million a year.
Lamoureux said he'd prefer a tax cut that wasn't dependent on obligations such as the desegregation payments decreasing.
"I really don't like pegging that to other events that are outside of our control. ... If we're going to cut or reduce the grocery tax, we need to do it and decide how much we think we can do," Lamoureux said. "If we're not going to do it, we need to not do it. I don't think we need to do it or not do it based on a federal judge's ruling on an unrelated issue."
Although Republicans in the House have talked up the idea of income tax cuts, Lamoureux said he believes there's more interest in the Senate in tax reforms aimed at helping manufacturers. Those reforms could include a cut in taxes on utilities for manufacturers, he said.
Lamoureux said lawmakers first must decide how much, if any, money is available in the state's budget for tax cuts before they debate which ones to enact. Beebe has said he proposed the conditional grocery tax cut because there was no money in the state budget and because of the shortfall the state's Medicaid program faces.
"It goes back to Medicaid," Lamoureux said. "Depending on what our budget obligations are, you may have the best tax policy idea in the world. The question is, can the state afford it in the short term?"
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo