Legislature 2017

All happenings at the state capitol in winter, spring 2017.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

A bill to cap the number of enrollees in the state’s Medicaid expansion pool at its current rate, roughly 332,000, is progressing through the Arkansas legislature despite violating federal law.

HB1465, sponsored by Rep. Josh Miller, (R-Herber Springs), passed the full House earlier this month and is scheduled to go before the Senate Public Health, Welfare, and Labor committee Wednesday.

Approved by the legislature and then-Gov. Mike Beebe in 2013 as the Private Option, the state's response to the Affordable Care Act of 2009 provides health coverage for low-income Arkansans. It was rebranded by Gov. Asa Hutchinson as Arkansas Works in 2015.

The federal government currently pays for 95 percent of the Medicaid expansion costs, and that is slated to drop to 90 percent in 2020.

“It’s not a boon to the people of Arkansas,” said Miller.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

They sit in rows, 150 closely shaven men in yellow uniforms and white identification badges, before opposing walls, in a cinder-block walled gymnasium.  

A selected group of four sit in plastic chairs forming a circle before their co-residents. Two stand up and shake hands, and the others say, “Squash it!” and clap.

These residents at Little Rock’s all-male Community Corrections Center have a daily ritual, a conflict resolution practice, meant to teach them interpersonal skills before they return to the real world.

Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

Arkansas’s 91st General Assembly has hosted serious discussions on healthier eating (only) on food stamps and on Sharia Law, guns on college campuses and sanctuaries on those same campuses for undocumented immigrants. Less attention until late had been given to the roughly two dozen bills that seek to shape up — or water-down, depending on your bent — the state’s half-century old Freedom of Information Act.

Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

A host of bills have been filed in the 91st General Assembly that direct Arkansas’s voter-approved medical marijuana program in small and moderate ways, but two senate bills would prohibit smoking, eating or drinking medical marijuana products. Monday, the smoking ban failed a Senate floor vote by 14 votes, 10-15, but it could come up again.

The Medical Marijuana Amendment, Issue 6 on the ballot Nov. 8, passed with better than 53% support.

Arkansas Public Media spoke to the amendment’s author Monday afternoon just before the Senate floor vote. Little Rock attorney David Couch specializes in nursing home litigation and regulation.

We began with the legislation banning smoking and ingesting marijuana, sponsored by Republicans Jason Rapert (Bigelow) and Gary Stubblefield (Branch) in the Senate, and House Rep. Robin Lundstrum (R-Elm Springs).

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is endorsing a proposal to end the dual recognition of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee on the same day each year.

He took to the lectern Wednesday to say that, as Americans celebrate the slain Civil Rights icon, residents of the state are presented with a choice.

“That choice that is there, it divides us as Arkansans and as a nation,” Hutchinson said.

NPR / Arkansas Public Media

A report on a state legislator's bill to wipe the name Clinton from Little Rock's national airport was the lead story on NPR's U.S. news page Wednesday morning. 

Arkansas Weighs Whether To Remove The Clinton Name From Little Rock's Airport

Arkansas Public Media reporter Sarah Whites-Koditschek filed the report as part of NPR's ambitious new reporting partnership with dozens of radio stations and public radio reporting projects like Arkansas Public Media across the nation. The state governance project seeks to cover statehouses and legislation debates with an eye toward what trends nationally are impacting local governance, and vice versa.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Schools in Arkansas get $6,600 for every student. So when kids leave a public school, the money leaves too. The state chips in temporarily to cover the financial loss, but a pair of lawmakers want to end that.

NPR / Arkansas Public Media

Erika Gee is on the government relations and regulatory team at the law firm of Wright Lindsey Jennings, and she's taken clients who wish to procure licenses for medical marijuana dispensaries or cultivation facilities, a five- to seven-figure outlay before a single seed is planted or bud is sold. 

Andrew King is on the Cannabis Engagement Committee at another big firm, Kutak Rock, and he absolutely will not. King has written about why for Arkansas Lawyer. 

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Public school districts in Arkansas regularly buy and sell property, pending approval of local education boards, of course. But today, the Arkansas Senate approved a bill that would take some of that control away.

Senate Bill 308 would allow charter schools the right to purchase or lease unused public school buildings, a seemingly small concession that nonetheless raises big questions about local versus state control of schools and inspired a heated back and forth between senators this week.

Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) said Tuesday that some public school districts let buildings sit empty, a misfortune he equated to murdering a building.

“We have had schools literally rot to the ground rather than let someone use them for educational purposes. That should never happen.”

Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) had a lot of questions for Clark. She told a Senate Education Committee Tuesday that the bill is heavy handed, and she said it takes local control from public districts.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Under a bill that cleared the Senate Education Committee Tuesday on a voice vote, all private schools would be given public funds to take special needs kids if parents so choose, even if they haven’t achieved what’s called “accreditation.”

The Arkansas Department of Education says it can take four years to get that status. State Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D- Little Rock) says accreditation is evidence that the schools are doing a good job.

“I don’t think you do it by allowing kids to be put some place for four years that’s not accredited and may never be accredited.”

Ann Kenda / Arkansas Public Media

Sales tax on soda will go up from 1.5% to 6.5% in Arkansas next year, under a bill signed by Gov. Hutchinson that aims to raise millions for military retiree tax cuts.  The increase is coupled with a tax reduction on the wholesale price for the syrup used by beverage makers, which has advocates for the poor complaining that the higher tax will be paid only by consumers.

The increase comes at a time when soda has largely fallen out of favor with consumers, as they seek healthier alternatives.  PepsiCo (NYSE: PEP) spent its advertising dollars this year on a 30 second ad during the Super Bowl promoting its new LIFEWTR premium bottled water instead of its traditional cola drinks.

Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

  This legislative session, 15 Republican state senators and more than 50 representatives signed onto Senate Joint Resolution 8 — a referendum for voters in 2018 that would cap lawyer fees and plaintiff awards in civil lawsuits. It would also circumscribe the powers of the state Supreme Court.

  If SJR8 by state Senator Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) sounds familiar it’s because it was nearly on the ballot last year as Issue 4. The state Supreme Court struck it down just before the election. 

Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

By the closest of voice votes the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee rejected legislation from one of its own.

House Bill 1035 by state Rep. Mary Bentley (R-Perryville) would have prohibited the expenditure of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program dollars on soda, candy, chips and other junk foods.

The committee is comprised of eight members — six Republicans and Eddie Cheatham (D-Crossett) and Stephanie Flowers (D-Pine Bluff). The voice vote was so close that chair Cecile Bledsoe (R-Rogers) hesitated before calling it for the nays.

Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

 

Tuesday's meeting of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana was business as usual even as House and Senate committees take up bills today that could  redirect the Commission's momentum.

The commission meeting began with a presentation by Lauren Ballard, revenue legal counsel at the Department of Finance and Administration, on what litigation followed from other states'  medical marijuana programs--cautionary tales for these five commissioners, only one of whom, Travis Story of Fayetteville, is a lawyer. 

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / Arkansas Public Media

Update:

A bill that would defund Arkansas universities, were they to shelter undocumented immigrant students from federal law enforcement in the course of a criminal investigation, failed on a voice vote before the House Education Committee Tuesday morning.

Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

A bill filed last week by state Rep. Charlie Collins (R-Fayetteville) would ban so called sex-selective or “family balance” abortions. 

 

 

Bobby Ampezzan/ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

A bill that makes no mention of Sharia Law nonetheless sparked an intense debate Thursday in the House Judiciary Committee on the need for Arkansas to gird itself against such foreign influence in its courts.

It passed out of the Committee on a voice vote along party lines. It goes now before the full House.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek/Arkansas Public Media

In Washington the Republican-controlled Congress is speeding toward a repeal of the Affordable Care Act. While GOP leadership at the Arkansas state Capitol has said lawmakers should wait and see what happens, some conservative members of the legislature want action now.

Danny Johnston/AP

Democrats in the House and Senate have filed a number of ethics bills, none more than Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis. But the Senate Committee set to evaluate his legislation hasn’t a single Democrat on it, and at least one Republican says he’s not enthusiastic about the amendments.

On Thursday state Sen. Missy Irvin of Mountain View filed a bill that’s a bit of a rejoinder to Little Rock Rep. Clarke Tucker’s maternity leave bill.

Irvin is a Republican and Tucker’s a Democrat. 

Late last year Tucker filed House Bill 1046 that would give state employees six-weeks paid maternity leave or $500 a week, whichever is more.

On Thursday Sen. Missy Irvin filed Senate Bill 125. It would also codify state employees’ rights to maternity leave, but not as an employment benefit funded by state agencies. Rather, it calls for maternity leave to be treated as any other leave for sickness or disability, and for the first time would make available hours from the Catastrophic Leave Bank, a pool of accrued annual and sick leave that employees donate unused hours to in order for other employees desperate for paid leave to draw upon.

Tucker said he’s happy the Republican Party is taking up the issue of maternity leave. It's not a threat to his own bill, though presumably both will not make it to the governor's desk.

Center for Economic and Policy Research 2008

Note: An earlier version of this story said there was no cost estimate available for paid maternity leave for state workers. In fact, a 2015 financial impact statement put the costs to the state of six-weeks paid maternity leave at $354,000, according to a story published by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on Dec. 15. Neither source referred to in this story, when asked, made mention of this earlier cost estimate. 

Little Rock Democratic Rep. Clarke Tucker is re-introducing paid maternity leave, a state worker benefit he tried and failed to get through the last legislative session.

Filed Monday, House Bill 1046 would give state employees six-weeks paid maternity leave or $500 a week, whichever is more. Employees who’ve worked less than a year are explicitly excluded, as are those at public colleges and universities, many of whom have already signed contracts with ample paid leave, maternity or otherwise.

It does include qualifying part-time employees.