Friday, May 17, 2013

TOP STORY >> Carter out as lawmakers reflect

Leader staff writer

For area representatives, how the regular session of the 89th General Assembly went varied, but the overall sentiment is that it was productive.

House Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) is term limited and can’t run for re-election. He said Friday he will not run for governor but will return to Centennial Bank, where he has been promoted to executive vice president.

“After much deliberation, I have decided against a campaign for governor at this time,” Carter said in a statement. “In the past weeks I have had many calls of encouragement and offers of support from fellow Republicans, independents and yes, even Democrats, all of which I very much appreciate. I love this state and I love public service.”

Rep. Jim Nickels (D- Sherwood) was pleased with the Medicaid private-option bill passing, but disappointed that a bill to restore a week to the length of unemployment benefits didn’t pass.

“We are the only Southern state to pass something like this,” he said of the Medicaid expansion. “It will be very beneficial to the state and the working poor. I feel pretty good about that.”

But first-time Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin) thinks otherwise. “I was the only one in this area to vote against it. The private option plan will cost the federal government $30 to save Arkansas $1, and guess who is paying that $30? We are. Over a 10-year period it will cost us $27 billion, and if we had done nothing, it would only cost $3 billion.”

Farrer added the session was a learning experience. “We dealt with so much information in such a short time, you had to be an expert on everything or make sure you did your research. I enjoyed the session, learned a lot — some good, some bad,” Farrer said.

Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) said, overall, the session was successful. “Items most important to Republicans got passed, like Second Amendment protection, abortion and some voting reform, and a lot of it was passed with bipartisan support.”

“I only saw five or six party- line votes. Everyone came to work for their constituents. I saw very little me-attitudes as everyone was working for the good of the people,” said House, another freshmen representative.

Nickels said it certainly had its ups and downs. He was not pleased that a buy-American bill was not turned into law. He said the House approved his bill, but the companion bill couldn’t get out of the Senate.

“It was a weaker bill than ours and couldn’t get 18 votes. The political group Americans for Prosperity fought hard to defeat it. They ought to be called Americans for Chinese Prosperity,” Nickels said.

But he was happy that two less-notable bills he sponsored sailed through and became law. “They weren’t earth-shattering except to the people involved,” he said.

One was a bill that did away with a state regulation that was detrimental, according to Nickels, to middle school band and choir programs.

He was also pleased with the passing of a bill giving state employees more grievance. Nickels said that under executive order if the state lost a grievance, it could appeal, but if the employee lost, no appeal was allowed. “This levels the field a bit,” the representative explained.

A bill that he co-sponsored to expunge conviction records also won approval. “This applies to folks who have been good citizens and ask that their conviction be expunged. It gives them a chance to get on with their lives,” said Nickels.

During the 100-day session, which ended Friday, legislators introduced 2,492 bills, and 1,520 have become law; 1,300 of the bills introduced this session originated in the House.

Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville), who is in his third and final term, said the session started slowly. “We had 40 or more freshmen, and for the first month we didn’t get much done. It was a big learning curve. I’m just now knowing what I’m doing and my time is almost up,” Perry explained.

House is happy that a bill making sure military members’ absentee ballots count was passed into law.

Before House’s bill, if a military member sent in an absentee ballot and died before it arrived and was counted, the vote would not count. “It’s appalling to me that it was conceivable for the government to inform a family about the death of a loved one and then the state following behind letting them know the service members vote didn’t count,” House explained.

The representative was disappointed that a bill limiting state spending to three percent of the previous year’s budget didn’t pass. “Right now as we get it in, we spend it,” he said.

Even though Nickels and Farrer were on opposites of the private-option bill, like Nickels, Farrer was pleased with a small bill he got passed.

Farrer was able to get into law a $1,000 tax deduction for volunteer firefighters for purchase of their equipment and property damage. “We have 14 volunteer departments in the district. I campaigned to help them and this new law does,” Farrer said.

Even though the session officially ended Friday, Farrer will stay busy as a member of the lottery-oversight committee.

Perry was pleased that everyone worked together to past the private option. “It will be good for Arkansas,” he said.

He was proud of two education bills that became law and one was used just last week. Perry sponsored a bill that extended the amount of time the state could run or control a school district from two years to five years.

Last week, Dr. Tom Kimbrell, the state’s education commissioner, announced that the Pulaski County Special School District was making some progress under state control but not enough to be released, and it would stay under control of the state for at least another year, meaning the district will spend at least three more years under direct state control.

Perry also pushed through a bill that set up the framework for a district to detach or separate from another district, and the new law says the old district will help financially support the break-away district for up to two years while the new district is setting up its finances.