LITTLE ROCK — With lawmakers planning to go home in the first week of April, the main task remaining on the Legislature’s agenda is the process of setting the budget and spending priorities for the next fiscal year.
“I think you’ll really see both chambers probably narrow down and focus on what really has to happen before the session ends,” Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said Thursday. “Most of the major policy changes have moved through at this point, so (the budget) is the focus.”
A few high-profile bills on other topics could still receive debate this week, however.
Late last year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed a $5.5 billion balanced budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Legislative leaders are expected to unveil a budget bill this week that will mostly match the governor’s proposal, with some tweaks.
The process of considering and approving the budget bill is expected to last into early next week. After the measure is sent to the governor, the session will go into recess. Formal adjournment of the session is set for no later than May 5, giving lawmakers time to correct mistakes in bills and try to override gubernatorial vetoes.
Hutchinson is expected to call a special session soon after formal adjournment so lawmakers can pass legislation that will be needed if federal waivers he is requesting for the state’s Medicaid expansion program are approved. The program provides subsidized private health insurance to more than 300,000 Arkansans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
Hutchinson wants waivers allowing Arkansas to lower the maximum income level to 100 percent and add a work requirement. He has said he is hopeful President Donald Trump’s administration will grant the waivers, which he could not get from former President Barack Obama’s administration.
For first time since it was enacted in 2013, the program is expected to receive reauthorization and a renewed appropriation without significant opposition.
“There’ll be members that vote against it, but I think people have an understanding … that we’ve got a lot of changes ahead of us, but no one knows what that should look like yet, and they’re probably willing to go ahead and move forward with the budget as it is right now,” Dismang said.
On Wednesday, Hutchinson signed into law a bill to allow a person who has a concealed-carry permit to complete eight hours of additional training and obtain an enhanced permit allowing him or her to carry a concealed handgun in numerous places where they currently are banned, including state college campuses and athletic events.
On Thursday, the Senate voted 22-8 to approve Senate Bill 724 by Dismang, which would exempt college athletic events, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the Arkansas State Hospital, which is connected to UAMS, from the new law. The bill is now in the House Judiciary Committee.
Hutchinson has called Dismang’s bill reasonable and endorsed it. The National Rifle Association announced Thursday it will oppose the bill in committee, saying the law should stand as is.
The Senate voted 22-5 last week to approve SB 746 by Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning. The bill would create a four-year pilot program in which the state would provide a 65 percent tax credit on donations to nonprofit organizations that would manage “education savings accounts.”
Families could apply for the accounts and use them for private schools or home schooling. The cost to the state would be capped at $9 million over the life of the pilot program.
The bill is in the House Education Committee. The House previously rejected a similar bill, but SB 746 contains some provisions aimed at addressing concerns that were raised about the earlier bill, including a provision stating that schools must comply with federal anti-discrimination laws.
SB 774 by Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, would require that a bathroom in a government building be designated for one sex only and that people use only bathrooms in those buildings that match the sex on their birth certificates. A government entity could be sued if it does not protect a person from encountering a person of a different sex in one of its bathrooms.
Collins-Smith says the bill is aimed at keeping women and children safe. The governor has said Arkansas does not need a law on bathroom access and has asked asked the Legislature not to approve any such legislation.
The bill is in the Senate Judiciary Committee, where it has not yet received a vote. The committee is chaired by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, the governor’s nephew, who has said he has concerns about the bill.
Senators voted 20-9 last week to approve SB 177 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest. Under the bill, a person who has been committed to the custody of the state Department of Correction three or more times previously and is committed again would have to serve at least 80 percent of his or her sentence before becoming eligible for parole.
The bill, now in the House Judiciary Committee, is estimated to cost to the state about $20 million in fiscal 2018, with the cost growing to $121 million in 2020. It is estimated to add 6,000 inmates to the state’s prison population by 2026.
King says the bill would reduce crime and save lives. The governor opposes the bill because of the impact it would have on the state budget.
The House voted 53-31 last week to approve House Bill 1742 by Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, which would ban individuals from bringing most class-actions lawsuits alleging deceptive trade practices. The state attorney general would still be able to file all types of class-action suits.
The bill is in the Senate Insurance and Commerce Committee. Gray says it would reduce frivolous lawsuits; opponents say it would protect businesses that deceive customers.
The House State Agencies and Government Affairs Committee voted last week to advance House Joint Resolution 1003 by House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, a proposed constitutional amendment that would make it harder to amend the state constitution.
If placed on the ballot and approved by voters, the measure would, among other things, increase the popular vote needed to amend the constitution from a simple majority to 60 percent; increase the legislative vote needed to refer a proposed amendment to the ballot from a simple majority in each chamber to a two-thirds majority in each chamber, and increase from 15 to 25 the minimum number of counties from which petitions must be submitted for a voter-initiated amendment.
Supporters say the measure would give Arkansas a more stable and consistent constitution. The Christian conservative Family Council opposes the measure, saying the process by which voters can amend the constitution is already difficult and should not be made more so.