TOP STORY >> Area lawmakers are pleased with session
Leader senior staff writer
Area legislators—most of them greenhorns—were in the thick of things during the 87th General Assembly, which will probably be best remembered for taxing cigarettes to fund a statewide trauma center and approving a lottery to fund scholarships.
The action, while not as dramatic as some past years when lawmakers dug deep to fund court-ordered school improvements, also included other important legislation such as cutting $40 million in food taxes and extending the governor’s authority to propose highway bond issues.
Because of term limits, Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, and Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy, have served in their last major General Assembly, although voters in November decided upon annual sessions, so another budget will be passed in 2010.
Glover tried unsuccessfully to refer an act to the voters that would allow them to eliminate the annual sessions and return to a biennial legislature.
Capps, on the other hand, was asked by Senate leader Bob Johnson, D-Bigelow, to create a template for the new even-year sessions.
“We came up with new rules, set a date for the beginning of the session, the budget hearings—everything is now ready for this (new) annual session,” Capps said.
“It was not a great session, but we were frugal, fiscally sound and funded education,” he said.
All 13 bills Capps sponsored this year became law. Eight were simple appropriations.
He carried one bill for Gov. Mike Beebe, which increases by one the number of representatives on the state medical board and requires representation from all four congressional districts.
He said that a new cigarette tax would fund a state trauma system, improve health units around the state and other health-related items. Capps said the trauma system would save many lives.
Glover said he was proudest of being the primary sponsor of the 1-percent reduction in grocery taxes, which he carried for Beebe. It was a campaign promise to eliminate the grocery tax and the governor and the state legislature have now eliminated four of the 5.12 percent they control.
As for the new, even-year meeting of the legislature, Glover said, “First and foremost, we’ll look at revenues and see if income comes in as projected. Hopefully we won’t have to adjust the budget.”
Glover also successfully handled a bill that extended for two years the governor’s authority to ask voters to create a $575 million a year fund for highway repair projects.
Glover sponsored a new law that provides a way for counties to make road-maintenance agreements with the haulers of heavy loads of materials and production fluids from gas exploration, and another requiring the sites where those materials are dumped to be restored when the dumps are full.
He stepped back from a proposal that would have required or allowed local approval before a disposal permit for such material could be issued. He said the gas drilling industry provides millions of dollars and many jobs in Arkansas communities and he didn’t want to hamper the drilling, but to protect the public as much as possible.
“My first impression was good,” said freshman Rep. Walls McCrary, D-Lonoke. “We accomplished a number of things everyone should be proud of.”
He said Republican and Democrats worked well together in the session.
McCrary, working in concert with Glover, gathered 70 of the needed 75 votes for the grocery tax cut before Rep. Rick Saunders, D-Hot Springs, took over. “It was a really good session for education.”
He cosponsored the bill extending the highway bonding authority for two years to 2015.
Rep. Davy Carter, R-Cabot, introduced 13 bills, three of which became law, but some he was most interested in did not.
“The thing I really wanted to push was my charity bill,” Carter said. “It had a lot of support.”
The bill, which was tabled in committee, would have allowed taxpayers to take $1.25 credit for each $1 donated to charity.
“The biggest learning curve for the new legislature was the budget process,” Carter said. “Until you go through the whole thing you don’t know.
“I’m ready to go back and get some things done,” he said.
“A lot of things got through that I fought against,” he said. He cited the cigarette tax and teen driving restrictions, which he said would hurt drivers and families in the Cabot and Jacksonville areas.
He handled some bills for the Arkansas Bar Association, including three laws that clarify the rights and responsibilities of parties in an asset-forfeiture action, a law that adds the prosecuting attorney, county sheriff or police chief to the list of those to be notified about deaths and also the state police, county coroner and state medical examiner for deaths that occur in prison.
“I though it went quite well,” said Rep. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, also a freshman.
She said major issues this session included the animal cruelty bill, lottery and the new tobacco tax, but “We’re much luckier than most other states that we can give a tax cut on food and reduce the tax on utilities for manufacturing interests and still have money to spread around the state.”
English said she voted against new fees and taxes across the board.
She called Rep. Dawn Creek-more, D-Hensley, a heroine for working on victims’ rights issues.
English sponsored a bill to exempt retired military pay from income tax, which has been referred for study to the interim joint committee on revenue and taxation.
She sponsored an act to remove barriers to educational success for military children, which included smooth, easy transfer of academic records and also sponsored an act that appropriates $9.7 million for construction of a veteran’s nursing home in North Little Rock.
She sponsored, then pulled down, a bill that would allow a homeowner to use deadly force when they feel threatened, a much lower standard than the current law, which limits use of deadly force if the homeowner can avoid it or retreat safely.
“In my discussions with the NRA and the concealed-carry group, they say they have enough on the books (now),” she said.
“We accomplished quite a bit in 88 days,” said Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood.
“My best moment was the property tax relief for the elderly and handicapped,” he said, which came quite early in the session.
“A couple of disappointments—I tried to get a handle on the hiring of illegal workers by contractors and also to bring the Arkansas minimum wage law in line with the federal minimum wage.
He got the bill out of the House, but got only four of the five votes needed to get it out of committee in the Senate.
“We stopped the bleeding on the funding of health insurance for school employees,” said Nickels, “but still not (those) employees who are not eligible for Medicare.”
He successfully sponsored a bill that includes homicide to the list of crimes, which, if performed in the presence of a child, allow for sentences to be enhanced by one to 10 years.
Rep. Mark Perry introduced two bills favorable to a Jacksonville/north Pulaski County school district. Neither got out of the House Education Committee. One would have allowed creation of a new public school district by an unopposed written resolution of an existing district from which territory will be detached.
The other called for an equitable division of assets and liabilities upon the creation of a new school district in Pulaski County.
Perry, an insurance agent, also sponsored a bill that would have prohibited publication or access to accident reports for 30 days “to discourage the filing of frivolous insurance claims.”
Rep. Jonathan Dismang, a freshman Republican from Dist. 49, says despite getting few bills passed, he had a good year. He learned a lot about the process, he said, and most of the bills he tried to get through for 2009 aren’t gone, they are just on hold until 2010.
He sponsored HB1563 to exempt active-duty military personnel from income tax on service pay or allowances.
“I can’t think of a group I’d rather have involved in state government than the military,” Dismang said.