Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

TOP STORY >> New lawmakers settle in

By ERIC FRANCIS
Special to The Leader

State Rep. Jane English had a big smile on her face when she came out of the House chamber at the state Capitol on Monday afternoon. Her first bill had been up for a floor vote moments before and her colleagues favored HB1400 with 97 ayes.

And while she owned up to experiencing some butterflies during her first time in “the well,” as the sponsor’s podium is called, “I just told them about the bill,” English (R-North Little Rock) said with a cheery confidence.

She’s one of six freshmen from northern Pulaski, Lonoke and White counties in the House of Representatives – three Republicans and three Democrats – and they’ve just hit the halfway point in their first regular session. For six weeks they’ve been exposed to the arcanae of legislative procedure, the persuasive arts of lobbyists and the high expectations of constituents. They’ve also experienced the first truly hard-fought battle this year – the tobacco tax hike, which Gov. Mike Beebe signed into law on Tuesday – and have the single biggest issue of the session still looming in the form of the lottery.

If there’s a consensus among the freshmen so far, it’s that surprises have been few.
“I think I had somewhat of a feel for how it would be,” said Rep. Davy Carter (R-Cabot) in the halls outside the House chamber Monday. “I haven’t been thrown too many curve balls.”

For her part, English said being on the decision-making side of the legislative process isn’t all that big a change from her past work.

“I’ve been in and out of state government for 20 years,” she said, including a nearly 14-year stint with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. “This is a really good freshman class. They are very intelligent, lots of young people.”

And both Reps. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville) and Walls McCrary (D-Lonoke) say the only thing that’s surprised them is the amount of time re-quired, and the amount of information that has to be assimilated.

“It’s more hours than I thought,” noted McCrary.

“It’s like riding a bicycle if you’ve never done it before,” said Perry of the learning curve. “It can take you awhile to get the hang of it.”

For Rep. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe), the highlight of the session so far was having a bill die in committee. HB1178 would have limited the ability of gas companies to use eminent domain to lay pipelines across private property.

“It was very exciting, a learning experience,” he said, noting that he’s still holding the bill for a possible second run later in the session.

Dismang said he’s heard that while the volume of bills isn’t up to last session’s, they’re already dealing with legislation of major consequence in the tobacco and lottery bills. And such high-profile legislation piques constituent interest.

“One thing I’m trying to figure out is how to tell my constituents why I voted as I do,” Dismang said, adding that the constituent services office told him that before the tobacco tax vote, he received more calls asking him to vote against it than any other representative.

That’s what he did, and now he says he’s proposing a bill to look at how the tobacco settlement money the state already receives might be used to help smokers quit.

“Now that we’re punishing smokers with a tax, we also should help them,” said Dismang.

While English is pleased with the passage of HB1400 – which requires uniform collection and sharing of school records for students of military parents, to ease their transition between schools and help make sure they graduate on time – she won’t be trying to push a slew of bills through this session.
I’m very careful,” she said. “I didn’t come down here with 50 bills. Sometimes I think we pass too many laws.”

The only other bill she has filed, HB1245, would exempt military retirement pay from the state income tax. She says it will encourage more military retirees to relocate here, noting that many are young enough to have a second career, which will promote economic growth.

Rep. Jim Nickels (D-Sher-wood) has had one piece of legislation already signed into law – it allows property taxes that have been frozen for senior citizens and people with disabilities to be unfrozen and adjusted downward if their property values have fallen – and has two more filed:

One that would penalize contractors who hire illegal aliens, and another that would equalize the state minimum wage with the federal minimum wage.

“I feel like, for a freshman class, we’ve been hit with some pretty heavy issues: The cigarette tax, the lottery,” said Nickels. “We have to realize in a hurry that our votes do make a difference in the lives of Arkansans.”

Nickels said he got a fair amount of input before the tobacco tax vote. Special interest groups were “quite heavily involved” in the lobbying, he said, and he heard from a lot of voters, as well.

But many of those were from people outside his district, Nickels said, although his own constituents also made their opinions known.

Perry said the feedback from constituents on the tobacco tax ran about 50-50 pro and con, but he received no pressure from either lobbyists or the bill’s opponents in the House.

So far, he’s heard nothing from his constituents on the lottery, but acknowledges there’s a ways to go before it takes its final shape. Among his concerns are that nontraditional students – those who are not graduating high school seniors – will not be provided for, as well. English also expressed the same concern, as did Nickels.

One of Carter’s concerns for the lottery bill is that the process of applying for and receiving scholarships be transparent and simple. Parents and students should be able to get online and see right away how to qualify and how to apply.

“I’d like to see most, if not all, of the money go to a new scholarship” program, he said, with “just a straight GPA minimum [requirement] and let it go from there.”

For McCrary, the goal is simple: “As many scholarships for as many kids as possible.”
Still, he said this “seems like a complicated situation that the leadership is trying to simplify.”

And all six representatives emphasized a familiar refrain for legislators: They were honored to be here.

“The truth to tell is that I agonize over every vote,” said Carter. “I try to think through every single vote. When I press that button, I’m representing 30,000 people.”