Wednesday, April 05, 2006

TOP STORY >> Major education bills soar through Senate

Leader staff writer

“Today we had a good day,” state Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy, said Tuesday of the special session called by Governor Mike Huckabee.

On the second day of the special session, area lawmakers reported progress not only on the education funding changes mandated by the state Supreme Court, but on raising the minimum wage, restricting smoking in public places and prohibiting protesters from interfering with military funerals.

“We passed in the Senate the majority of the major education bills,” said Capps. “We didn’t get to the bill on the 8 percent (cap on) administrative costs”

“There’s a little trouble in the house, but the education leadership felt they could work it out,” he said. “It gives me hope we will get through this week.”

Not everyone is as optimistic about finishing the special session by Friday, but area legislators to a person said good progress was made in a spirit of cooperation.

“We’re just getting started,” said state Rep. Susan Schulte, R-Cabot, cosponsor of bills against sexual predators and for increasing the minimum wage.

“I don’t feel the current minimum wage was reflective of what needed for a basic salary,” said Schulte, a small business owner herself.

The bills headed toward passage would raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $6.25 an hour, but without amending the constitution to do so.

State Rep. Jeff Wood, D-Sherwood, was the lead sponsor of a law intended to prohibit protesters from knowingly interrupting a military funeral or visitation from 30 minutes prior to until 30 after the event.

“The intent is to keep people from blocking entrance into a church. Protesters could come to within 150 feet of such a service or funeral.” Wood said the trick was to balance the right of privacy against First Amendment rights.
“Worse case scenario, we’ll be out (of session) by next Wednes-day),” said Wood.

State Rep. Lenville Evans, D-Lonoke, cosponsored an amendment to the dark skies law passed last session to help keep the stars from being obscured by over lit cities. Compliance promised to be expensive for city and county governments and was opposed by the Arkansas Municipal League, Evans said.

Evans said he favored raising the minimum wage, but not a law prohibiting smoking in certain public places.
“If you don’t want people to smoke, put up a no-smoking sign,” he said.

State Sen. Sandra Prater, D-Jacksonville, a former cardiac nurse, cosponsored the clean air bill to limit smoking in public places.

“Thirteen other states have it,” she said. “You can’t smoke in malls, hospitals or public buildings.”
She said there was evidence that the ban hadn’t hurt business.
Prater also cosponsored the minimum-wage bill.

“I don’t believe it will have any problem passing the floor vote tomorrow,” she said.
“It’s time we increase the minimum wage here in Arkansas,” said state Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle.
“There’s no way anyone can make a living by any stretch of the imagination.”
He said there was “a glitch” in a public school finance bill.

“We pulled it down to fix and put back,” he said.

“There’s not a lot of controversy at this point and time,” said Glover.
State Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, said he thought the increase in the minimum wage was “pretty much a done deal,” though it was “particularly not a good idea to put in the Constitution.” He said the bill has overwhelming public support.
“There is a little bit of a dispute on how the (school) districts would have to spend money,” Bond said.

As currently written, some districts would have to put all new money into raising minimum teacher salaries, while locally, the Pulaski County Special School District, the Little Rock School District and the North Little Rock District already surpass the minimum and would be free to spend that money for other needs.

As for the special session, “I’m all for getting out as quickly as possible,” he said.
“We should have focused more on education, but anytime you have 35 agenda items on the call, there’s a chance for some delay.”