Tuesday, January 18, 2011

TOP STORY >> Lawmakers get down to business

Leader staff writer

The 2011 legislative session started on schedule last week in Little Rock despite the snow that made roads treacherous.

New Dist. 28 Sen. Eddie Joe Williams said that it was a lesson in constitutional law for him. The General Assembly convenes on the second Monday in January even if it means police cars and helicopters must be called into service to transport legislators.

“I drove up that morning,” Williams said. “Just put the Jeep in four-wheel drive and eased on in.

“It was an interesting week,” he said. “We got all the bills passed to keep the government running.”

One issue that legislators will likely look at is revenue for highways. Williams said he is opposed to any new taxes for highways, even an increase in the excise tax paid by natural gas producers on the gas leaving the state.

“A tax is a tax,” Williams said. “My position has always been that if you buy a battery or a set of tires or windshield-wiper blades, that money should go to the highways.”

That proposal comes from a blue-ribbon highway commission chaired by former Sen. John Paul Capps of Searcy. The tax on automotive products currently goes into the general fund, and Gov. Mike Beebe has told lawmakers that is where it will stay.

Williams said before the session started that he might introduce a couple of bills in his first year. He talked a little more about what he has in mind.

“Twenty percent of the population of Arkansas doesn’t have a high school diploma or a GED. I’m trying to write a bill to address that problem. No one has taken a hard look at that in the past few years,” he said.

Williams, the former mayor of Cabot, gave no details about his proposed bill, but his description of what it might accomplish was characteristically colorful.

“We’re not only going to give a guy to fish,” he said. “We’re going to teach him how to fish, bait his line and show him where the best hole is.”

Williams said he also has a bill in mind that would require online services that book hotel rooms to submit all the state taxes they collect to the state. He said he learned from hotel managers in Cabot that, for example, when a guest pays $100 for a room online, the hotel gets half that amount and the state gets the tax on half even though the service collected tax on the whole $100 charge.

“The Department of Finance is aware of the problem but there is no legislation to prevent it,” Williams said.

Bad weather aside, Williams said his first week as a state senator had been a good one.

“It’s coming together for me. I’m understanding the process,” he said.

Although he is the new state senator for Dist. 29, Jonathan Dismang served as a state representative from House District 49 for two years before being elected to the Senate, so he already knows how it works.

“It’s going to be a very conservative body,” Dismang said, alluding to the appropriation bill that was sent back to committee because legislators were concerned about giving raises to judges and prosecutors.

Dismang said he is working on several pieces of legislation. He wants to decrease the amount of state taxes withheld from the paychecks of active-duty military personnel.

Many people who live in Arkansas declare legal residencies in Alaska, Florida and Texas because those states have no state income tax.

Some of those people are more than qualified to serve on school boards and city councils, but they don’t because they aren’t legal residents. But if their taxes were cut, they might declare Arkansas home, he said.

Also in the works is a bill to give a state income tax credit to volunteer firefighters who meet their departments’ training and attendance requirements.

Retention is a big problem for volunteer fire departments, Dismang said. A tax credit might be the incentive needed to get them to stay on the job.

Jeremy Gilliam, the new representative for House Dist. 49, said he was surprised that many in the know called the first week of the 88th General Assembly slow.

“It’s going to be interesting to see what they call a fast week if that was a slow one,” Gilliam said.

Gilliam said that right now, he has no plans to draft legislation but he does intend to pay close attention to the bills that will affect his district.

He has been assigned to the House Judiciary Committee where a proposed bill from the governor to hold down the cost of housing inmates in state prisons, by making more efficient use of parole and probation officers to supervise non-violent offenders, will almost certainly be sent.

With an estimated 3,000 bills expected to be introduced, Gilliam said discussion about pacing so that all the legislators know what they are voting on was one of the most important things that happened this week.

The state Constitution requires legislators to meet for a minimum of 60 days, he said. But it is likely to take 75 or more to get all the work completed. His goal this session is to do good work, he said, not just put in his time so that he could say he was there.