Gov. Sanders: Medicaid special session ‘certainly possible’
Gov. Sarah Sanders reflected on her first legislative session and the nearly 100 days of her administration in a wide-ranging interview on Sunday’s (April 16) Capitol View and Talk Business & Politics programs.
Covering session topics ranging from education to criminal justice to taxes, Sanders also said a less-discussed issue – Medicaid spending – could be the subject of a special session later this year.
“I think it’s certainly possible that we could have a special [session], not a 100%. I don’t want to just go in without a plan,” she said. “That’s what we’re working on right now, working with our partners in the legislature to see what the best path forward is and how we address some of the cost and have a bit more cost containment and look for long-term sustainability. Because that’s what we need when it comes to our Medicaid program. It’s certainly not the path that we’re on right now. So we’re digging deep and that’s a big priority for us over the next several months.”
Sanders acknowledged that disenrollment – a process to clear Medicaid rolls that took place with loosened federal regulations during the COVID-19 pandemic – is one aspect that is creating uncertainty in the program. She also said her efforts to put a work requirement in effect for Medicaid expansion recipients is another area for consideration. Other aspects of the program are under review.
“I think that we’re more in the assessment process of what are the areas like, those that we need to address that help us have long-term sustainability and contain the overall cost of the program,” Sanders said.
Sanders’ first session saw her successfully pass her most important legislative initiatives: education reform, criminal justice changes, and a tax cut. With supermajorities in the state legislature, the outcomes were not in doubt, but the components of the plan took time to shape.
The first-term governor said critics of her LEARNS plan are invited to the table to participate in the rules and regulations that will further shape its implementation. There are working groups holding public meetings around the state to gather input for final rules and regs.
“The meetings that we’ve had have been open meetings that anyone who wants to attend certainly can. So if they aren’t engaging, I think the responsibility lies on them,” Sanders said.
“But you have to think about too, some of these people are the exact same people who begged and called for teacher pay raises for years and then we gave it to them and not just a little bit. The largest increase that we’ve seen, we went from being at the very bottom in teachers’ pay at $36,000, No. 48 in the country, to being in the top five overnight. That is a historic move in really empowering our teachers. And this is the same group that’s now attacking me for giving teachers pay raises.
“So some things, I don’t think you’ll ever be able to please, but certainly we want all of these people to come in, be part of the conversation, let us answer their questions, let us address their concerns, and if they want to be a productive part of the implementation process, we certainly welcome them to be part,” she said.
On prisons, lawmakers approved spending for $330 million to build a new 3,000 bed prison as well as passed legislation to make violent crime sentences longer. Sanders said her administration is looking to add 500 new beds or more in existing facilities to help alleviate the backlog at the county jail level where state prisoners are being housed due to overcrowding.
“We’ve found and identified 500 new spaces so that we can alleviate some of the pressure at the county jail level. We are looking at opening up those slots here over the next couple of weeks and months and letting that be part of the process to bridge the gap before we can open a new prison,” she said. “We’re confident we can find some additional bed space beyond the 500 while we work on building a new prison.”
A new prison is expected to take 3-5 years to construct. In the meantime, Sanders said she has not ruled out the possibility of outsourcing prison space from other states and allowing for early parole releases through the Emergency Powers Act, a tool she can use, if necessary.
“I haven’t yet. I think we’re in a position hopefully, where we don’t need to, but I’m certainly not going to take anything off the table,” she said.
Sanders said she is committed to “responsibly” reducing the state income tax, which was lowered by two-tenths of a percent at the individual and corporate levels in the last session.
The combination of her expanded education plan, criminal justice reform, and the tax cuts pushed state spending to $6.2 billion, about $177 million higher in the Revenue Stabilization Act than the previous year. Her programs and other one-time spending will draw about $1.5 billion out of surplus funds for projects.
Sanders contends her budget was smaller than the previous administration’s recommendations for ongoing spending, but acknowledged she would be focused on curtailing state government expenses in the future.
“If you look at the budget from the previous year, if you take away the one-time spending, we actually decreased the budget from the previous administration by $150 million. But that’s the locked in long-term budgeting. And I think that’s what you have to distinguish. Every place that we could find government waste and to cut, we’re going to continue doing that, that’s going to be a huge focus as we move forward,” she said.
Sanders has consistently found a national profile since taking office. She delivered the GOP response to the President’s State of the Union speech, and she’s frequently profiled favorably in national conservative media circles.
The buzz has her name on the short list for potential 2024 Vice-presidential choices in the Republican party, although the primary season hasn’t even started. Sanders said she’s not that interested in being on a national ticket at this juncture.
“I’ve spent time in D.C. and I feel like I’ve checked that box. I’m very happy to be in Arkansas, this is home for me. This is where I grew up. This is where I want my kids to grow up and this is where I hope my kids will stay and raise their own families. I absolutely love being home and I have no intention of doing anything else differently at this point,” she said.
As for her choice for the Republican Presidential nomination, which could include her former boss, former President Donald Trump, or her predecessor, former Gov. Asa Hutchinson, or a half dozen other speculative GOP candidates, Sanders offers a compliment to Trump but downplayed her participation in the field.
“There are people I obviously have great relationships with. I worked for President Trump for two and a half years. Love the president, wish he was in office right now because I think our country would be in much better shape if he was. But my plan is still the same at this point, is to stay focused on Arkansas. We just finished our first legislative session. The ink on the bills is not even dry yet and we’re also dealing with a massive recovery from major devastation across the state. And so, my focus is going to stay on Arkansas,” she said.