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Arkansas legislative leader foresees special session on health insurance

Left to right: Senate President Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy) and Governor Asa Hutchinson (R).
Michael Hibblen
File photo of Sen. Jonathan Dismang and Gov. Asa Hutchinson from April 1, 2015.

Arkansas Joint Budget Committee co-chair Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, wants to see a reduction in spending growth in state government, and he is expecting a special session after the fiscal session to address health insurance for state employees and teachers.

In an interview on Talk Business & Politics, Dismang said educational adequacy, which has legal parameters to consider and is a legislative-driven function, is the biggest catalyst for the governor’s 3.3% increase in state spending.

“I think the biggest part of that increase is being driven by the legislature through the changes in adequacy. On a personal level, I want to make sure that we take a deeper dive into the budget and see if we can tamp back that 3.3% growth,” he said.

“I think we’re going to be able to do that in trying to identify different items I think that could be adjusted so that we don’t have that greater growth. At the same time, you have to be realistic about what’s happening in the economy. The fact that inflation is fairly rampant right now, that not only affects the private sector, but the public sector as well. And we need to make sure we’re well below what that inflation growth is,” Dismang added.

One area where he predicts legislators may look is in performance funding for state employees where he said healthy balances already exist. They may allow for less funding to be channeled in that direction. The sprawling Department of Human Services agency is also a likely place for lawmakers to examine potential savings.

During the pandemic, the state has seen growth in the number of children and adults utilizing some form of Medicaid for healthcare. Dismang said while those numbers are high right now, some savings may come as the pandemic retreats and the economy improves, which could lead to people falling off Medicaid rolls.

“I think there will be some savings because folks are going to fall off that are currently utilizing the program, but you’re absolutely right. That there’s a concern,” he said. “There is a ton of unknown as far as where we’re actually going to land, and again, what this new reality for healthcare costs is going to be?”

Finally, Dismang revealed that a long-brewing crisis in how to fund public school teacher and state employee health insurance may lead to a special session later this year.

Dismang hopes that his colleagues will stick to budget issues in the upcoming fiscal session, which starts in February, and will leave policy matters to either the special session or next year’s regular session.

“I think there will be an opportunity for members to work on some of those policy-related issues or non-financial issues in that special session,” he said. “For me, on a personal level, we are not a full-time legislature. We’re not supposed to be a full-time legislature. And some of these things need to wait until we get into the regular session.”

You can watch Sen. Dismang’s full interview below.

Roby Brock is the Editor-in-Chief and Host of Talk Business & Politics.