Tuesday, January 03, 2017

TOP STORY >> Legislators preparing for session

By JOHN HOFHEIMER Leader senior staff writer

When the 91st General Assembly convenes for 60 or more days Monday, there will be some big-ticket items, but nothing as incendiary as approving and funding the Affordable Care Act in sessions past.

Among the local legislators reached Tuesday, none mentioned repeal or reconfiguration of Obamacare as a top priority—in part because no reasonable alternative for providing health care or insurance to 20 million Americans or about a quarter-million Arkansans has been put forward.

Nationally, Republicans who control the House and Senate are moving toward legislation that would repeal Obamacare and possibly leave millions uninisured, including 300,000 newly insured Arkansans.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has announced his legislative agenda, but he seems content to avoid any major Affordable Care Act changes.


Topping his agenda are a $50 million low-income tax cut, plus another $10 million cut from exempting military pensions from state income taxes.

He has vowed to find cuts to offset the pension exemption, but one possibility would be sales tax on used mobile homes, which has generated some opposition.

Rep. Bob Johnson (D-Jacksonville) and Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) are two lead proponents of the military retiree income-tax break, saying it would encourage veterans to retire to Arkansas and would pay for itself over time.


The bill has become part of the governor’s legislative agenda.

Another major push during the session will be creating the infrastructure to set up the medical marijuana sales approved by voters in November.

House Speaker Jeremy Gilliam (R-Judsonia) asked state Rep. Doug House (R-North Little Rock) to handle that for him before the November election, and House on Tuesday said that would likely take up much of his time this session.

House said he’d prefer to handle such matters administratively rather than legislatively so that if needed, changes could be more easily made.

He said he had pre-filed an appropriation bill and another to provide further guidance on selecting licensees for growing and dispensing the medical marijuana.

House said that while he contributed to the campaign against legalization, Arkansans have voted for the measure, 53-47 percent. “That’s the end of it,” he said. “We’re going to make it happen.”

He said Gilliam selected him because of his military background, where he didn’t have to agree with an ordered action to make it happen.

Marijuana sales, whether medical or not, are illegal according to the federal government, but under the current attorney general, it’s not being prosecuted when states have voted for it. House said only a different approach by a new attorney general could change that.


“I’ve had to dial back the things I was kind of hoping to work on,” House said.

He said that he is concerned about the six pension systems operated by the state—worried what happens if there is another market crash. He said the state’s debt is about $16.75 million and most of that is from pensions.

He said tort reform and juvenile sentencing are other issues he concerned about, and “voting what’s best for my district.”

Sen. Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot) is assistant president pro tempore. He is chair of the state agencies committee, which will hear 10 or 15 constitutional amendments.


“We may take a hard look at health insurance for teachers,” he said, “Maybe introduce a pilot program.”

He said he was leading an effort to build a gold-star family monument on the capitol grounds. “I’ve met with the secretary of state (in charge of capitol grounds) and will have plans and drawings soon.

Rep. David Hillman (R- Almyra) who recently moved from the Democratic Party to the Republican Party, said he’d introduce a couple of bills including one that may be controversial.


He said sometimes small, rural towns don’t have the resources to comply with laws. The bill would allow for their dissolution. He cited the example of a small town where five aldermen, two are dead, two are in a nursing home, and the last is 85 years old.

Frequently, these towns have loans that must be repaid for water or sewer systems.

Hillman said it would be like a bankruptcy proceeding, with a trustee appointed to oversee the towns involved.

Hillman is also interested in a workers’ compensation bill, a bill to add to the trespassing law, with for instance someone caught on a farmer’s land with a stock trailer, useful in cattle rustling.

With the governor’s legislative package, “We’ve got our 60 days cut out for us,” he said.


Rep. Tim Lemons (R-Cabot) has filed a bill to exempt passenger buses from about $35,000 in sales taxes.

He said they could roll the sales tax savings into salaries for additional bus drivers and that the additional trips would generate more taxes.

He also wants to file a bill to change antiquated laws or take them off the books. Currently. if a dog gets loose, for instance, and kills a goat, the goat’s owner is supposed to have a quorum court member decide liability. “A quorum court member has no business serving in a circuit judge capacity,” Lemons said.

He wants to add teeth to blue light offenses with people impersonating law enforcement officers. Also, he would make it illegal for non-handicapped persons to park in a handicap spot if they didn’t have a handicapped person with them—whether or not the car had a handicap tag.


Military pension tax relief isn’t Johnson’s only interest.

He said he would file this week a bill that would allow restaurants in dry areas to sell liquor by the drink without going through the charade of becoming a private club. He said that would help Jacksonville and other dry areas to land more restaurants and increase the tax base.

He’s working on a couple of concealed carry bills for members of the military and is working with Williams and Lemons on language regarding warrantees for shingles and some other building materials.

He’d like to put language in a bill that would automatically reduce income tax when revenues reach a certain level.

Johnson also wants to make it easier to file Freedom of Information requests by computer at various agencies and offices and also is considering another bill that would increase to 10 days the time within which the information sought must be provided—if it’s a large request. He said the problem is determining what constitutes a large request.


Rep. Karilyn Brown (R- Sherwood) had intended to file, at the request of a pediatrician friend, a bill that would remove the religious and philosophical vaccine exemption.

“It takes a little more study,” Brown said. “It’s caused a lot of rancor elsewhere,” she said. “I got numerous angry phone calls and vitriolic posts on Facebook. I got swamped with emails,” she said.

She said she wants to run a bill defining what representatives to a constitutional convention could do, should one be called. “If we send them, they can vote on what we send them for only. It’s a good stopgap measure. It provides a sense of security if things go awry—a safety valve.”

Brown would look at impediments to small and new entrepreneurial business. She also wants to fix the Department of Human Services computer problems that make Medicaid payments sometimes difficult or impossible.

“It’s a very bad situation, an antiquated system,” she said.