LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — What a difference one election can make.
The approval of a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana and Donald Trump’s surprise White House win weren’t just two of the biggest political stories in Arkansas. They also upended the agenda for the upcoming legislative session and are likely to dominate Arkansas’ politics in 2017.
From establishing the first medical pot program in the Bible Belt to the future of a hybrid Medicaid expansion program covering thousands, the state faces plenty of questions in the new year.
Here’s a look at some of the issues and challenges to face the state in the next year:
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Gov. Asa Hutchinson, the majority of the state Legislature and Arkansas’ other top elected officials campaigned vigorously against a plan to allow certain patients to use medical marijuana for their ailments, and the success of that program’s launch now depends on those same officials. There’s a tight timeline, with an early March deadline to finalize rules and a June 30 deadline to begin accepting applications for dispensaries and cultivation facilities, though lawmakers are weighing whether to give agencies more time. The program also faces a push by some opponents to add new restrictions, including a sales tax on medical pot that one lawmaker says could be used to cut taxes elsewhere.
Trump’s election injects uncertainty into many federal programs affecting Arkansas, but probably none more than the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion. More than 300,000 people are receiving subsidized coverage through the program, but Trump and congressional Republicans are poised to follow through on their vow to repeal the federal health care law that created it. It’s unclear what will replace it, though Hutchinson and other Republicans have called on the Trump administration to allow states to cover people through a block grant system. The uncertainty about the health care law’s future is bound to come up as lawmakers take up legislation reauthorizing the hybrid expansion program for another year.
Hutchinson is widely expected to seek re-election in 2018, though he hasn’t formally announced his plans. The legislative session could indicate just how tough of a fight he could face within the Republican Party, not to mention from Democrats. The first-term GOP governor faces pushback from some conservatives who think he isn’t going far enough to the right on some issues. That includes his $50 million income tax cut proposal, which is being criticized by some GOP lawmakers who want deeper cuts that will take effect sooner. Hutchinson has indicated he doesn’t want lawmakers pursuing a measure requiring students at public schools to use restrooms corresponding to the sex on their birth certificate. He’s also said the state’s current law leaving it up to colleges and universities whether to allow faculty and staff to carry concealed handguns on campus is “workable,” suggesting he doesn’t back an effort to expand that law.
Democrats in disarray
The November election and the defection of three lawmakers to the GOP left Democrats in their weakest position in Arkansas since Reconstruction. Republicans now hold 102 of the 135 seats in the state Legislature, and have enough seats in the state House to pass most budget bills without any help from Democrats. The legislative session will test whether Democrats can still have leverage as they try to fight the GOP on multiple fronts, including efforts to impose new restrictions on abortion and attempts to reinstate a voter ID requirement that was struck down by the state Supreme Court in 2014. The party will also look to a depleted bench to field candidates for governor and other statewide offices in the 2018 election.
The state Supreme Court will have a new makeup in the new year, with Dan Kemp joining as chief justice and Shawn Womack as an associate justice after an election that was marked by outside groups spending big on the two seats. The most high profile case to watch will be over a state law preventing cities and counties from enacting LGBT protections. The court’s seven members have also publicly opposed an effort by lawmakers to end the popular election of judges and justices.
Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter: @ademillo