Southwest Arkansas Daily
State Capitol Week in Review
From Senator Larry Teague
March 24, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – As the General Assembly approaches the final days of this year’s regular session, lawmakers approved bills affecting public and private education, criminal justice, prisons, election procedures, campaign finance and unemployment benefits.
Senate Bill 647 is a 60-page measure that sets up new accountability and assessment tools used in public schools. Educators will be affected by how it changes the methods for designating schools that are in academic distress. The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 23-to-4. It went to the House Education Committee.
The Senate passed SB 746, by a vote of 22-to-5, to set up education savings accounts into which individuals and corporations can donate money and receive tax credits.
Parents can apply for financial help from the accounts to offset the cost of tuition and other expenses of sending their children to private schools. It also was referred to the House Education Committee.
The Senate voted unanimously in favor of HB 1014 to allow teachers to claim up to $250 a year in income tax deductions for expenses they incur buying school supplies for their students from their own pocket. It went to the governor.
Both chambers passed and the governor signed Act 539 to eliminate the death penalty and life without parole for people who commit capital offenses before they turn 18. Those inmates would be eligible to appear at a parole hearing after 25 or 30 years in prison, depending on their original sentence.
The Senate passed a criminal justice measure, SB 177 to require inmates to serve at least 80 percent of their sentence if they have been in prison at least three times previously.
Some lawmakers voiced concerns over the potential $20 million a year in additional costs the bill would create for state prisons.
After it passed the Senate on a 20-to-9 vote, it was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
The legislature approved and sent to the governor HB 1047 to require voters to present identification with a photo in order to cast a ballot. A registered voter without photo ID can sign a sworn statement that they’re registered voters and their provisional ballots will be counted. A false statement would be considered perjury.
Political action committees, exploratory committees and independent expenditure groups must file their finance reports electronically under HB 1010, which has been approved by both chambers and sent to the governor. It is similar to Act 318, approved earlier in the session, which requires candidates to file electronically.
The House approved HB 1707 to permanently move the date of primary elections to March. It was referred to the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. The primary was temporarily moved from May to March in 2016 so that Arkansas would have a more influential voice in the presidential races.
The legislature has passed and sent to the governor HB 1405 to shorten from 20 to 16 weeks the length of time someone may receive unemployment insurance benefits.
It also lowers the wage base from $12,000 to $10,000, which will lower unemployment insurance taxes for Arkansas businesses by an estimated $50 million a year.
March 17, 2017
The legislature has passed and sent to the governor a “campus carry” measure that was amended numerous times and applies to many more areas than college campuses.
As originally introduced, House Bill 1249 would have allowed faculty and staff at state colleges and universities to carry a concealed firearm on campus, as long as they already had a concealed carry permit.
That was the version that the House passed by a vote of 71-to-22. It was sent to the Senate, where seven amendments to the bill were considered and five amendments were adopted. After amending it, the Senate passed it on a vote of 18-to-9.
The final version of the bill allows anyone with a permit to carry a concealed firearm on campus, as long as they take an additional eight hours of training. Permit holders who take the additional training will not have to renew it in future years, and the cost will be nominal.
With the added training, they will also be able to carry on certain government property and many other locations where they could not carry under previous law, such as churches and restaurants with liquor permits.
However, churches and establishments may still prohibit entry to people carrying concealed firearms if they post a written notice at the entrance that is clearly readable from within 10 feet.
The bill will probably allow Arkansas concealed carry permit holders to legally carry in other states, because reciprocal agreements require additional training.
The House formally agreed with the five Senate amendments to HB 1249, and sent the bill to the governor for his signature.
In a related vote, the Senate approved legislation to allow people with concealed carry permits to store a handgun in their motor vehicle on the parking lot of their place of employment. The gun must be stored out of sight in a locked handgun storage container. The right to keep a gun in a motor vehicle does not extend to people who are not employees.
The Senate passed the measure, Senate Bill 37, by a vote of 24-to-7 and sent it to the House, where it was referred to the Judiciary Committee.
HB 1222 to create education savings accounts was amended five times before the Education Committee sent it to the full House. It would allow individuals and corporations to earn tax credits when they make donations into the accounts.
Parents would be able to apply for financial aid from the accounts to help with tuition and other costs associated with sending their children to private schools and non-public schools. The financial benefits from an education savings account would not be considered taxable income for the parents.
One of the amendments to HB 1222 reduced its impact on state revenue. Until fiscal year 2021 the total amount of tax credits may not exceed $3 million each year. In part due to concerns expressed by public school officials, the bill failed by a vote of 37-to-47.
Two House bills have been filed to enact a $200 million a year highway program. HB 1726, to set up a bond issue for highway projects, failed on a 38-to-35 vote.
It needed 51 to pass. HB 1727 would finance the bonds by applying the state sales tax to wholesale purchases of gasoline. The Transportation Committee advanced it to the House.
March 10, 2017
The General Assembly gave final approval to legislation that will give law enforcement authorities effective new tools to deal with people going through mental health crises.
Act 423 of 2017 will establish three regional Mental Health Crisis Stabilization Centers, each with 16 beds. When people need mental health treatment and are causing trouble, the police can take them to a center rather than to jail, where they will not get any treatment at all.
Act 423 also sets up courses to train police officers to recognize and respond to people going through a mental health crisis and whose behavior could be harmful to others and to themselves. The training includes how to deal with people under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Under Act 423 the Arkansas Crime Information Center, which keeps criminal records, will include in those records people’s history of mental health screenings when they are admitted to jail or a mental health crisis center.
The Legislative Criminal Justice Task Force worked on the bill for two years, which also changes how parole violators are treated.
In other news the governor announced his plan to hold down Medicaid costs. There are four main provisions in the plan, and the state must get approval from federal officials to put them in place.
One is a work requirement. Another encourages workers to sign up for employee-sponsored health insurance, rather than for Medicaid. A third provision would allow state officials, rather than federal officials, to determine eligibility. Finally, eligibility would be for people earning 100 percent of the poverty level, rather than the current 138 percent.
Initial estimates are that lowering the income threshold would remove about 60,000 people from the list who qualify for Medicaid expansion, which now has about 311,000 people enrolled. Although they would no longer qualify for Medicaid they could buy health insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act, under which they could get tax credits to help them pay the premiums.
The Senate gave final approval to a proposed constitutional amendment that would require voters to present a photo ID in order to cast a ballot. If passed by voters it would authorize the legislature to determine the acceptable forms of ID.
The measure will be on the general election ballot in November of 2018, as will a second proposed amendment referred to the ballot earlier this session that would limit attorneys’ fees and punitive damages in civil lawsuits.
The Senate passed an amended version HB 1249, which has been labeled the “campus carry” bill. Originally it would have allowed faculty and staff with concealed carry permits to carry a firearm on college campuses. After seven amendments, it is a much different bill. It would allow anyone over 21 with a concealed carry permit to carry on campus, but only after they complete eight hours of additional training.
The State Police may waive up to four hours of training for people who got their permit within the past 10 years.
For permit holders who take the additional training, the new bill expands the number of places they can carry. However, they still will not be able to carry a firearm into prisons, courtrooms or school facilities for kindergarten through grade 12. The new version of the bill would expand the number of states that recognize our concealed carry laws, and which will allow Arkansas permit holders to carry in those states under reciprocal agreements.
March 3, 2017
Soldiers and airmen of the Arkansas National Guard who are students at state-supported colleges and universities will have their tuition paid for, under legislation passed by the Senate.
Senate Bill 278 has several purposes. First is to improve the Guard’s readiness, both for domestic emergencies and foreign missions. Arkansas has lost units to other states that provide more benefits, which means that fewer units are available in Arkansas to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies.
The loss of Guard units has a negative impact on local economies. In 2016 an estimated $37.2 million was lost in the Arkansas economy due to the loss of Guard units.
After its passage by the Senate on a vote of 34-to-0, SB 278 was sent to the House Education Committee.
The Senate passed SB 136, a 55-page bill addressing criminal justice, prisons and sentencing laws. It authorizes the construction throughout the state of mental health crisis stabilization units with 16 beds each.
The governor’s proposed budget calls for opening three units. Criminal justice experts say there is a need for as many as eight. Police officers will get some training in how to recognize mental health issues and how to deal with people experiencing a mental health crisis. They will be taken to one of the stabilization centers instead of to jail, where treatment for mental health problems is lacking.
It passed 27-to-4 and was sent to the House Judiciary Committee, which gave it a favorable recommendation. The next step is a vote in the entire House.
Both chambers passed HB 1426, which creates a new tuition grant program that will allow students to receive two years of tuition if they study in high-demand fields, such as computer science, technology or welding. They must perform community service and commit to working in Arkansas for at least three years after receiving their degree. The grants will be available in the fall of this year.
The governor signed Act 281, a Senate bill that makes Arkansas the first state to designate the grounds of its Capitol as a site for a monument honoring Gold Star families. Since World War I gold stars have traditionally designated the loss of an immediate family member during wartime.
The monument shall be designed and constructed in the manner recommended by the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation. Williams, who attended the bill signing, is the sole living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. His foundation works to place Gold Star monuments all across the county.
Both chambers have passed HB 1427 to require political candidates to file campaign finance reports electronically, and to require the Secretary of State to maintain those records on a web site with a search function.
Candidates who do not have access to the technology necessary could submit paper records throughout the election cycle. The effective date of the bill is October 1, 2017.
The Senate passed SB 362 to phase out a tax credit program for manufacturers called InvestArk. The bill gradually repeals the sales tax they pay on replacement and repair parts. By the time it has been fully implemented in 2022, it will save Arkansas manufacturers about $12.6 million a year
February 24, 2017
A Senate committee has advanced legislation that requires voters to present a photo ID before they can cast a ballot.
Under House Bill 1047, numerous types of identification are acceptable. They include drivers’ licenses, military and student IDs, public assistance card, concealed carry permits and passports. People who have no valid form of photo ID can get one for free, after making a sworn statement that they do not have any other acceptable form of ID.
A person who lives in a long-term care facility or nursing home can use a document signed by the nursing home administrator.
If voters arrive at their polling place without a photo ID, they can cast a provisional ballot and sign a sworn statement that will be sent to the County Board of Election Commissioners for verification.
Or they can visit the office of the County Board of Election Commissioners before the following Monday and show a valid photo ID, then their provisional ballot will be counted.
HB 1047 was given a do pass recommendation by the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.
The House approved a similar measure, except it is in the form of a proposed constitutional amendment that will be referred to voters in the general election in November, 2018. That measure is HJR 1016 and it passed the entire House on a 73-to-21 vote.
The Senate amended HB 1249 to allow people to carry a concealed firearm on a college campus if they have a permit. Originally the bill applied only to faculty and staff, then it was amended to require them to take an additional 16 hours of active shooter training.
It was amended again to allow anyone over 25 to carry a concealed firearm on campus, if they have a permit and take additional training. In order for the bill to become law, both the Senate and the House must pass an identical version of the bill.
Minimum teacher salaries will go up next year by $400 under, thanks to Act 246. The minimum starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree would be $31,400 a year and for a new teacher with a master’s degree the minimum starting salary would be $36,050.
In school year 2018-2019 the minimums will be $31,800 and $36,450.
Both chambers passed SB 31 to expand the opportunities for college students to qualify for lottery scholarships as traditional students, rather than as non-traditional students. The difference is important because the pot of money for traditional scholarships is larger.
If a high school student fails to score a 19 on the ACT right out of high school they are not eligible for a lottery scholarship as a freshman. However, if they get good grades in their freshman year, maintaining a 2.5 GPA while completing 27 hours, they can qualify as a traditional student your sophomore year.
Both chambers passed SB 123 to make permanent a pilot program that required welfare recipients to be tested for illegal drugs. The bill not only makes the program permanent but also makes it statewide, rather than effective in only a few counties.
Also, both chambers passed HB 1426 to restructure various scholarship programs and create a new one called the Arkansas Future Grant Program. It provides two years of tuition and fees to students who take courses in engineering, science, math, technology or a high-demand field.
February 17, 2017
After a lengthy and impassioned debate, the Senate voted to refer to voters a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit attorneys’ fees in civil lawsuits and limit the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded.
The measure is Senate Joint Resolution 8. The Senate vote is a virtual guarantee that it will be one of the proposed constitutional amendments that the legislature will refer to voters this session. In each regular session the legislature may refer up to three, although it has sometimes referred fewer than three.
This year the Senate and the House each will select a proposed amendment, and SJR 8 will be the Senate’s choice. Both bodies will have to agree on a third proposal.
The proposed amendments will be on the general election ballot in November of 2018.
SJR 8 would limit contingency fees charged by attorneys in civil lawsuits to a third of the net recovery.
Punitive and non-economic damages would be limited to $250,000, or to three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded. The resolution defines non-economic damages as those that cannot be defined in money, including pain and suffering, mental and emotional stress, loss of life or companionship, visible result of injury and physical impairment.
The Senate also amended HB 1249, which would allow staff at state-supported colleges and universities to carry a concealed firearm if they have a permit. The amendment requires them to take an additional 16 hours of training.
Even if they are licensed to carry a firearm and have taken the required 16 hours of additional training, the amendment would not allow them to take a gun into a meeting at which their job performance, grievances or disciplinary matters were being discussed.
Also, they still could not take the weapon into a child care facility on the campus, nor could they carry their firearm into a dormitory.
Adding the amendment means that HB 1249 must be reconsidered by the House before it becomes law. The House Judiciary Committee would vote on the amended version of the bill, and if the committee advanced it the entire House would vote on the amended bill.
In other news the governor signed SB 125 to allow maternity leave of up to four weeks with pay for state employees. It is now Act 182.
The act will not cost the state money because the leave will come from time donated by fellow workers into a catastrophic leave bank. Employees may use their maternity leave within the first 12 weeks after the birth or adoption of their baby. They will not have to exhaust their annual leave or sick leave in order to qualify for maternity leave.
The Senate approved SB 123 to make permanent a pilot program that requires welfare recipients to take drug tests. In the pilot program, 3,040 recipients were asked if they used drugs, and based on their answers 17 of them were red-flagged. Of those, 11 refused to take a drug test and lost their benefits for six months.
Another two tested positive and because they refused to go into drug counseling they also lost their benefits for six months. SB 123 was sent to the House, where it was referred to the Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
February 10, 2017
The Senate passed two bills to streamline state agencies and make them more
efficient. Other bills are in the pipeline.
Senate Bill 256 transfers the relatively small Arkansas Energy Office to the larger Department of Environmental Quality. The legislature created the Energy Office in 1981, a period when the country was recovering from oil shortages and long lines at gas stations. Its mission is to help people make their homes and offices more energy efficient, and helps agencies and schools get grants to pay for new equipment.
Senate Bill 257 transfers the Office of Health Information Technology to the Health Department. Since 2009 the smaller agency has helped medical professionals store and transmit health records electronically. The goal is for physicians, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies and all other providers to have access to a patient’s records as quickly and easily as possible.
In other news, the governor signed Act 148 to fundamentally change how colleges and universities get state aid. Instead of basing their funding on enrollment, Act 148 will apply a formula based on the number of students who graduate or earn a certificate that helps them get a job.
A provision in Act 148 limits the amount an institution’s funding can decrease to no more than two percent from one fiscal year to the next.
The governor signed Act 141, which will exempt all military retirement benefits from state income taxes starting in tax year 2018. Under current law only the first $6,000 in military retirement is exempt.
The act will benefit about 29,000 Arkansas veterans who served in the military long enough to earn retirement benefits. Each year, the act will reduce their state income taxes by an average of $462 each.
Act 131 extends the length of time that military members have to renew their drivers’ licenses after their discharge. Under current law their license stays valid for 30 days after their discharge, if they are serving out of the state and the license expires while they’re still serving. Act 131 extends to 60 days the period during which their driver’s license remains valid.
In each of its regular sessions the legislature may refer to voters up to three proposed constitutional amendments. The deadline for submitting proposed amendments has passed and 35 possible amendments were filed by lawmakers. The narrowing of that list to three will be the focus of the Senate and House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees.
The measures we place on the ballot will be decided by voters in a statewide election in the general election of November, 2018.
A major bill that is still being worked on is Senate Bill 136, a 46-page bill to modernize parole policies and criminal sentencing. It sets up additional training for police and correction officers in how to handle offenders going through mental health crises. It sets up a monitoring program so that law enforcement can keep track of the number of inmates with mental health problems.
SB 136, which is in the Senate Judiciary Committee, reiterates sentencing guidelines and requires a judge to provide a written reason for departing from those guidelines.
The bill sets limits on how long parole violators can be kept in prison, if the violation was technical or non-violent.
February 3, 2017
After putting the finishing touches on a $50 million-a-year tax cut for low
income families, lawmakers turned their focus to legislation that exempts
military retirement benefits from the state income tax.
About 657,000 Arkansas taxpayers will benefit from Act 78 of 2017, which reduces or eliminates individual state income taxes for people whose incomes are less than $21,000 a year.
About 29,000 Arkansas veterans, who served long enough to qualify for military retirement benefits, will benefit from Senate Bill 120 and House Bill 1162, which is identical. It exempts all their retirement pay from the state income tax.
State tax officials estimate that on average, each of them will save $462 a year in lower income taxes.
Now that the legislature has approved the main tax cut bills under consideration this year, the state’s revenue forecast is fairly clear. From this point on, spending bills will take up much of the legislature’s attention.
Up first on the Senates’ agenda is HB 1209, a bill to fundamentally change how state aid is distributed to colleges and universities. Now, higher education receives about $753 million from the state. That money goes to 22 two-year colleges and ten four-year universities.
The formula for distributing state aid is based in large part on enrollment, and as a result some campuses have adopted admission policies that have driven up the number of students dramatically.
HB 1209 would change the formula and instead would base funding on outcomes.
That means the percentage of students who graduate, with a degree or a certificate that better prepares them to get a job.
The governor included HB 1209 in his legislative package, and has pledged an additional $10 million in aid to higher education if the new funding formula is approved.
HB 1209 has been passed by the House. Although some House members expressed concern about its financial impact on particular campuses, the bill passed by a vote of 80-to-10.
The major concern expressed in the Senate Education Committee was that the state does not support higher education adequately. The committee gave it a favorable recommendation; consideration by the full Senate is the next step before it is sent to the governor.
By a vote of 74-to-21, the House passed and sent to the Senate HB 1047 to require voters to present a photo ID at polling stations before they can cast a ballot.
The acceptable forms of identification include a driver’s license, a concealed carry permit, a student or a military ID, a passport, an employee badge and a public assistance ID.
People who have no other valid type of identification card could get one for free from the Secretary of State. To get a free photo ID from the Secretary of State they must swear an oath that they do not have any of the other valid forms of ID.
The legislature has passed similar legislation in the past, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. For that reason, some legislators want to refer to a statewide election a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a photo ID in order to be allowed to vote.
The House passed HB 1249 to allow faculty on college campuses to carry a concealed firearm if they have a permit. Currently, they’re prohibited from doing so because each college campus has adopted a policy against it.
Those policies would be over overridden by HB 1249. It passed by a vote of 71-to-22 and will be considered next by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
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