LITTLE ROCK — The House and Senate overrode a gubernatorial veto and the House elected Rep. Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, as speaker-designate for the next regular session on the final day of the 2014 fiscal session.
On Wednesday, the House voted 55-41 and the Senate voted 26-7 to override Gov. Mike Beebe’s veto of a section of a budget bill declaring that the sand used by oil and gas drillers is exempt from the state sales tax.
Lawmakers affirmed the tax break despite warnings from the governor that it was passed in violation of the state constitution and could cost state employees a 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment that was included in the state budget bill passed last week.
The Special Language Committee added the section to the bill earlier in the session. Beebe has said that the Legislature violated a constitutional requirement that it consider only budget bills in a fiscal session unless two-thirds of the members of both chambers vote to take up a non-budget bill.
Beebe spokeswoman Stacy Hall said after Wednesday’s override vote, "Gov. Beebe is disappointed that the Legislature passed an unconstitutional bill for the benefit of out-of-state corporations at the expense of its own state employees."
Hall said the governor has said that the Legislature put the COLA money in a category that "goes away" if gas companies receive the $5 million-a-year break.
Supporters of the tax break said the language merely clarified that drillers’ sand falls under the state’s sales tax exemption for manufacturers’ equipment. They also said the tax exemption would encourage drillers to continue operating in Arkansas and employing Arkansans in their home state.
"If there’s anything that we can do to help keep Arkansas workers working in Arkansas, staying with their families, I think we need to take that opportunity," Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, said on the House floor while arguing for the override.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, who voted against the override, said she was concerned about widening the scope of issues considered during a fiscal session.
"I think we need to reconsider why we even have a fiscal session," she said on the Senate floor.
Both chambers adjourned after the override votes, officially ending the fiscal session that began Feb. 10. The House then held a secret-ballot vote for speaker-designate in which Gillam defeated Reps. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, Fred Love, D-Little Rock, and Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado.
The House staff later reported that Gillam received 57 votes, Shepherd 21, Love 15 and Hammer 5.
Next year’s House membership will not be required to honor Wednesday’s vote — and likely would not if Democrats were to win a majority of seats in November.
Last year, the House seated Davy Carter, R-Cabot, as speaker after Republicans won a majority of House seats in November 2012. A Democrat, Rep. Darrin Williams of Little Rock, has been the winner of the previous year’s speaker’s race.
In a speech on the House floor before the vote, Gillam, a farmer and chairman of the House Management Committee, pledged to bring Republicans and Democrats together.
"The ability to build a consensus is now more vital and a necessary skill than ever, and our speaker must possess that in the times in which we serve. I believe that I have demonstrated that ability in my time here in this chamber," he said.
One of the chief powers of the House speakers is the power to name committee chairmen. Gillam told reporters after the vote that he had promised no assignments to anyone and said he would follow the example of Carter, who gave assignments to both Republicans and Democrats.
"I believe that proportionate representation in the House is a key component in the way that we need to operate," Gillam said.
The fiscal session was dominated by debate over the so-called private option, the state’s program that uses federal Medicaid money to subsidize private health insurance for Arkansans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. A bill to appropriate a second round of federal funding for the program passed in a single vote in the Senate but failed four times in the House before passing on the fifth vote.
Gillam, a supporter of the private option, told reporters that in the next session he would focus on "seeing what’s working, what’s not working. And going back to the consensus, am I making sure that the members are well informed of what we’re seeing data-wise coming out of it, making sure that we’re all on board in the next session on what needs to be done? I’m confident that we’re going to be able to do that."