Wednesday, May 08, 2013

TOP STORY >> Session a success, say area senators

Leader staff writer

A success — that’s what area senators call the recently ended 2013 legislative session.

Successful bills helping the military, strengthening parole options and health care were all listed as high achievements by the local senators.

The legislature ended its 100-day session and went into recess April 23 after giving final approval to the state’s $4.9 billion budget for next year.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy), who has been elected to be the president pro tem for the next session, said there was a lot that the legislators had to tackle this year.

“We had to deal with a number of large issues right a way. We started with a $20 million shortfall in the lottery scholarship program and a $400 million deficit in the Medicaid program, and we were able to fix both,” Dismang said.

He’s glad the legislators banded together and passed the private-option legislation, one of 49 bills that Dismang sponsored. “It will help blunt the effects of the Affordable Care Act,” the senator said.

But he is most proud of the bill that gives the parole board more decision-making control in the release of prisoners. Before the bill became law, parole boards had to follow a state-mandatory formula. If a convicted rapist or sex offender met the numbers game, he or she would be placed on parole, regardless of circumstances.

Dismang and Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R- Cabot) pushed the bill after a sex offender received parole and then went on to rape a Searcy mother and kill her daughter. “The Parole Board now has discretion into whether or not to release these people,” Dismang said.

Williams and Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) are both proud of a series of bills that help the military get adjusted and into the local community more quickly.

One that Williams is happy about is Senate Bill 15, now Act 142, which “removes barriers to educational success imposed on children of military families.”

Williams, who sponsored 36 bills in this year’s session, said military members average eight moves in a 20-year career and often school records take time to catch up with the families. “We don’t want the children’s education delayed because a school district doesn’t have the paperwork.”

Surprisingly it took about five years to get the bill through. “We had a lot of opposition from Pulaski County Special School District and other organizations, but we finally got them all together and worked out a good bill,” Williams said.

The new law says schools have to place military students based on unofficial and hand-carried records or other data as soon as possible, and not wait for officials records to get to them.

“The governor told me it was an important bill that we passed,” Williams said.

He is particularly proud of a new law that he sponsored that prevents attorneys, chiropractors and others from obtaining the names of minors involved in accidents.

“This stems from a school bus accident we had in Cabot. There were 15 to 20 students on board and through the Freedom of Information Act, attorneys and chiropractors got the kids names and inundated them with mail and calls. Parents were very upset.”

Williams said under the new law minors’ names would be redacted, or blanked out, unless there is a valid reason to know.

Even though Williams said the session was a success overall, he didn’t get everything passed through that he wanted. “We didn’t accomplish any court reform,” Williams said. “Surrounding states like Texas, Oklahoma and Missouri have already moved forward on lawsuit reform. We are behind the curve on this,” the senator said.

Williams and English are glad that a bill they sponsored which allows military with professional licenses to work immediately and then take whatever courses or requirements are needed at a later date. English said the new law applies to teachers, plumbers, electricians and anyone with a professional license from another state. “This will help many military families where the spouse has to start over because the military member was transferred here,” she said.

English was one of the senators who voted against the private option. “To me it was a vote for government expansion and I’m against that,” the senator said.

She was glad to see the bill pass that exempts military members’ pay from state income tax.

“I tried to get a bill through that did the same for military retirees on a gradual basis because I want retirees to bring the education and skills to Arkansas. It didn’t pass this time,” she said.

This year’s session will officially adjourn May 17.

“We use the time from April 23 to May 17 to check the bills for minor mistakes before they become permanent,” English said.