Legislature 2017

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

The 91st General Assembly of 2017, in a decision that brought Supreme Court Chief Justice Dan Kemp over to the old Supreme Court chambers in the Capitol — now the scene of Senate committee meetings — decided to put to voters this November a big cap on lawsuit awards as well as a legislative power grab.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

A bill is up for vote by the general assembly  that would protect hog farmers from lawsuits for certain environmental issues once their waste permits are approved.

The legislation was approved by the Arkansas General Assembly today, and it's meant to reassure hog farmers as well as the banks who lend them money.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

State Sen. Alan Clark (R-Lonsdale) cast the decisive 27th vote in favor of granting Gov. Asa Hutchinson's appropriation to the Department of Human Services funding the state's health care coverage for low-income Arkansans called Arkansas Works. 

The bill now heads to the House of Representatives for a vote, and then on to Hutchinson, who's expected to sign it.

CSPAN

Days after Arkansas's biennial fiscal session began last month the CSPAN bus rolled into Little Rock, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson hopped aboard. The very first question moderator John McArdle put to Hutchinson was about a balanced budget — specifically, does Arkansas have one?

"Oh, absolutely. We don’t have a deficit in this state. It’s mandated by the [state] constitution to have a balanced budget, which means that we forecast the revenues, then we spend according to that forecast, and if during the course of a year, we don’t meet forecast then we reduce spending. ... We call it the 'Revenue Stabilization' law, which is a toggle, if you will, but it makes us control spending, reduce spending as needed, to make sure it mirrors our revenue picture.  There’s a few things the federal government could learn from this."

Michael Hibblen / KUAR News

Arkansas lawmakers have a couple more weeks in this year’s budgeting session to re-approve funding for Arkansas Works, the state’s healthcare program for low-income people. Yet, a handful of state senators and their votes to continue the program remain on the fence.

Arkansas Works  covers about 285,564 low-income people. It also brings in federal dollars that are important to the state budget. The Arkansas Department of Human Services says it would cost the state $148.9 million extra in fiscal year 2019 to continue serving the program’s population without the federal match from Arkansas Works.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

A row of men and one woman stood with guns raised to face paper silhouettes of a torso while their trainer counts off for them to shoot. The Arkansas Armory in Sherwood was holding one of its first shooting exams for the state's new enhanced concealed carry permit this month.

Applicants were aiming to hit an unmoving target 70 percent of the time, but they were also preparing for potentially more chaotic live scenarios as part of Arkansas’s new enhanced concealed carry license. It's for places like college campuses, the state capitol, restaurants, and churches. The license requires a shooting test and eight hours of training that includes, among other topics, what to do and not do in the event of an active shooter.

Bobby Ampezzan / Arkansas Public Media

Secretary of State Mark Martin banged a gavel officially opening the one-week filing period to run for office in Arkansas this year. The first candidate to file was state Treasurer Dennis Milligan, and within minutes he was followed by Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Gov. Asa Hutchinson — all seeking second terms.

Nationally, politicos and pundits are predicting victory for Democrats in this the first midterm election of the Donald Trump presidency. The president's approval ratings to date have been lower than any candidate since Gallup began surveying voters' opinion, and Democrats won high-profile  gubernatorial and special elections last year, including a surprise upset in a U.S. Senate race in Alabama.

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson called for a $180 million annual tax cut for the state’s biggest earners during his State of the State address Monday kicking off the 2018 fiscal session.
 
Hutchinson said the goal is to compete with other states for business investors. He said that at a recent meeting with the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal, he was asked how much top earners pay in Arkansas state taxes.

"And I said, ‘Well, it’s 6.9 percent, and they looked at me and responded, ‘That is worse than Connecticut.’ That story emphasizes the competitive nature of taxes in a mobile society.”

Governor's Office / You Tube

Arkansas's Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson will likely see most of his approximately $5.6 billion proposed budget for fiscal 2018-19 adopted without changes. It goes to the House of Representatives this week, where three in four voting members are Republican, and the Senate, with its strong Republican majority.

"I created a balanced budget that actually has a $64 million surplus that funds education, the priority needs of our state," Hutchinson said. "I'm hoping the legislature will greet that well, and will pass that, and as I give the State of the State address" today, "that'll be something I emphasize."

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

On the steps of the Arkansas state Capitol today supporters of ending legal abortion gathered for a rally. Yesterday, another march with very different ralliers called for keeping abortion legal — as well as grooming female political candidates for office, gun control and other liberal aims.

Both marches enjoyed passionate speakers and considerable turnout, but only one enjoyed the presence of the state's most powerful constitutional officeholders, from Gov. Asa Hutchinson down.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

It’s a small part of Arkansas's overall budget, but Gov. Asa Hutchinson's proposed $400 million dollar appropriation for the Department of Health next year got a strong review and a rebuke today by legislators at the capital.

"There are not enough votes to cut" the budget, complained state Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock), "therefore, I’m going to vote for the ER [executive recommendation], in which case the budget gets drafted, and we’ll fight this battle another day."

"Amen, brother," said Sen. Larry Teague (D-Nashville), Joint Budget Committee co-chairman, after roughly an hour's worth of motions, discussion, voice votes and roll calls.

Bobby Ampezzan / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

Arkansas’s spending on prisons and community corrections got a lengthy examination before a select committee of the state legislature Wednesday, but no legislator took serious issue with the more than half-billion dollar budget.

The Joint Budget Committee took aim at the 2018 budget for the state’s corrections departments, examining everything from health care and prison farms, to the cost of a phone call behind bars.

“If a guy gets put in prison, not only do we put him down there, we fix it to where he can’t even afford to call his family," said state Rep. Kim Hendren (R-Gravette).

Sarah Whites-Koditschek / ARKANSAS PUBLIC MEDIA

John Fulbright is manning a table at a gun show on a Sunday afternoon at the Arkansas State Fairgrounds in Little Rock.

He’s selling firearms and holsters for people who want to hide the weapons they’re carrying. He hovers over dozens of guns laid out for sale on the counter, and pulls a hard, synthetic holster out of its box to  hold it up for display.

“Some people like the appendix carry, which is carried in the front. Some people carry at the 3 o'clock positions, sometimes back to the five or 7 o'clock positions,” he says. “It’s just what’s comfortable for that person. They carry inside the waistband, outside the waistband...”

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.

“Arkansas is known to have one of the best Freedom of Information Acts in the country, and it’s because it’s simple, it’s straightforward, and it’s extremely pro-citizen,” says William H. Bowen School of Law professor Robert Steinbuch, who’s co-authored the sixth edition The Arkansas 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.

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