Republican candidate for governor Asa Hutchinson said Monday there is "fuzziness" about the Beebe administration’s estimate of the potential impact on the state budget if the so-called private option is not renewed.
Speaking at the winter convention of the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association, Hutchinson also said the state’s 2011 sentencing and parole reforms need to be revisited and accused President Obama of understating the dangers of marijuana.
Hutchinson was asked during his appearance about the possibility of budget cuts if legislators decide during the upcoming fiscal session not to renew funding for the private option, the state’s program that uses federal Medicaid money to provide private health insurance to low-income Arkansans.
Built into Gov. Mike Beebe’s proposed balanced budget for the coming fiscal year is an estimated $89 million in savings from the private option. Hutchinson told the sheriffs, "I think the numbers are very, very loose. We’ve tried to dig deep into those, and it’s hard to put a figure on exactly the budget impact if the private option is not approved."
Talking to reporters later, Hutchinson would not say whether he believes the Legislature should renew funding for the private option, but he said that "I think there’s a lot of fuzziness on what may or may not happen" if the private option is not renewed.
State Department of Human Services Director John Selig told a legislative panel last week that the savings are expected to result from moving people out of the traditional Medicaid program and into the private option and from a reduction in the need for state funding to help hospitals with uncompensated care costs.
Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said Monday the administration is confident that the $89 million figure is a close estimate.
"A lot of work went into pinning that number down," DeCample said. "And it’s not like that money is going to still be there if the private option goes away."
Hutchinson also told the sheriffs that Act 570 of 2011, which sought to ease prison overcrowding and lower costs in the prison and parole system, needs retooling.
"I believe that we need to revisit (the law), particularly in the area of some of the offenses that went from a felony to a misdemeanor … but also on the accountability on the parole side," he said.
Asked by reporters to cite specific problems with the law, Hutchinson said, "What I hear most about is, the felony theft limit was raised substantially in Act 570. That’s what many are complaining about, the prosecutors and sheriffs, that that does not give them enough flexibility to file more serious charges and to get their attention."
On the parole side, he said that "everything, from the number of parolees that are assigned to each parole officer and how they’re broken down from high-risk to low-risk, I think that has to be looked at as well."
Hutchinson also told the sheriffs he was concerned by President Obama’s comment in an interview published Sunday in The New Yorker that "I don’t think (marijuana) is more dangerous than alcohol."
"He is sending a signal to the young people of our nation that marijuana is not a path you need to worry about, it’s not a path of danger, it’s not a path of problem, and it is OK," he said. "That, you can be assured, will result in an increase in teenage marijuana use all across this country and in every county in Arkansas. So that has made your job even more difficult."
The state Democratic Party said in a statement Monday, "When bureaucrat-turned-lobbyist Asa Hutchinson went to Washington, he left his Arkansas values behind. In Congress, Hutchinson consistently voted against increasing funding for the Community Oriented Policing Services program. This is a program that makes our communities safer and has put more than 1,350 additional police officers and deputy sheriffs on the streets in Arkansas and added 120 resource officers to our schools."
Hutchinson is a former U.S. attorney for the Western District of Arkansas, 3rd District congressman, administrator of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration, undersecretary for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and National Rifle Association spokesman. Also seeking the GOP nomination for governor are state Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, and Little Rock businessman Curtis Coleman.
Former 4th District Congressman Mike Ross is currently the only Democrat in the governor’s race.