Monday, March 30, 2015

TOP STORY >> First-term reflections

Leader staff writer

Three first-time state legislators representing The Leader’s coverage area have been hard at work and learning the ropes this session.

They sponsored a combined 34 bills and co-sponsored countless other measures. Several of their bills have been signed into law.


Rep. Tim Lemons (R-Cabot), a former Lonoke County justice of the peace, sponsored 12 bills plus a resolution.

Of the session, he said, “It has been amazing, humbling…It has been an awesome experience, one that I will treasure forever. I really feel like this is where I need to be politically.”

Lemons added that he’d made life-long friends.

The first of his bills to become state law helps free up county monies.

Quorum courts are required to allocate only 90 percent of their anticipated revenues, and the other 10 percent must be set aside for use in an emergency, Lemons explained.

His bill doesn’t change that but instead removes three offices — those of the treasurer, collector and assessor — from being included in the total budget of which only 90 percent can be allocated.

Lemons said the new law would have helped Lonoke on its last budget, when the budgets of those three offices made up $1 million of a $7 million total and $700,000 was set aside. Instead of $700,000, the quorum court could have set aside $600,000 and had another $100,000 to use.

Lemons added that the budgets of those offices are separate from the general fund budget in other instances. The “common-sense” approach has the approval of auditors, and the idea originated with Lonoke County Treasurer Patti Weathers several years ago, he noted.

The freshman legislator is particularly proud of his bill that establishes a suicide prevention council. Both houses have approved the measure.

Veterans, the survivor of a suicide attempt, house and state representatives, an attorney general’s office staffer and others will serve on the council.

There have been different agencies addressing the same problem but not working together, Lemons explained. “The right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing; they’re spinning their wheels…There is no doubt this will save some lives.”

He said Arkansas receives a $760,000 grant every year for suicide prevention and lawmakers didn’t know which group to give that to.

The bill would have it go to the council and “we’re bringing as many people into this as we possibly can to make this thing successful,” Lemons said.

The resolution he sponsored asks that the post office assign mailing addresses to annexed areas that match the city they annexed into.

He explained how this issue impacted Ward and Austin when homes annexed into Ward had Austin mailing addresses.

Sales taxes were sent to Austin, which had to forward them to Ward. Then the annexed homeowners had to provide a letter to their insurance providers stating that they were in Ward city limits to avoid being overcharged because Ward’s fire rating is better than Austin’s.

The resolution, unanimously approved by both houses at the state level, has been sent to Congressman Rick Crawford and Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton.

Of the measure, Lemons said, “We can’t tell (the post office) what to do, but we can persuade them on what to do.” And, he noted, another state’s effort to do the same was a success.

A second annexation-related piece of legislation, which has been sent to the governor for his signature, allows an annexed area to leave one city for another if the first city fails to provide utility service within 18 months.

Lemons also sponsored three firearm-related bills.

One, which is in committee, would allow elected officials who work in a courthouse and have a concealed carry permit to possess their firearms while on the job.

Another, which was sent to the governor’s office, would let auxiliary police officers carry their service weapons when they are not on duty — just like full- and part-time officers can.

The third, sent to the governor’s office for signing, would give law enforcement chiefs who have to sign off on applications by gun owners who want to modify their firearms 15 days to take action on an application.

Lemons said some chiefs, because of their personal beliefs, have sat on applications, hoping the applicant would forget about his or her plans.

After the 15 days, the bill would allow the applicant an appeal to the district judge, who would then determine whether there is a reason their request should not be approved. If there is not, the judge can then order the chief to sign it.

Another of Lemons’ bills, passed by both houses, gives “direction” to funds already in the budget that support programs for kids with autism so that about 50 more kids can receive help without any tax increase and at no additional cost to the state.

One bill he sponsored that is now law protects someone buying a house by having the warranty that covers foundation repair stay with a home rather than follow its previous owner.

Two bills deal with elections — one returned by committee with the recommendation that it do pass streamlines the way they are run, Lemons said, while the other, which is awaiting votes by both houses, allows officials to have things like bumper stickers that support an issue as long as the official doesn’t endorse a candidate.

His final bill, which likely won’t be acted on until the legislature sees what money is available after recently approved tax cuts are implemented, makes it to where a company that donates goods won’t be charged sales tax on those goods.


“Everything is going well. I think the freshmen are getting a good rapport, being efficient, moving through the bills,” said Rep. Karilyn Brown (R-Sherwood). “It’s a learning process, but I am enjoying it.

It has been a tiring session, she continued. “It’ll be nice to have a little time to spend with some constituents” when it wraps up, Brown said.

She serves on the transportation committee and helped pass a bill that would help the state determine whether charging taxes based on mileage would be a better way to fund highways.

The program it could participate in would accept 5,000 volunteers. The volunteers would attach GPS devices to their vehicles that would track miles driven on Arkansas roads.

Brown explained that other states are doing this and the program could lead to those driving through the state but not purchasing gas here still paying their fair share for using Ark-ansas highways.

Her other bills allow the Department of Human Services access to paternity statements for use in child support cases and requires transparency when the attorney general’s office hires independent lawyers.

The paternity bill is now law, while the other has been delivered to the governor’s office.

One of Brown’s bills didn’t get very far, she said. It would have required delegates sent to a constitutional convention to refrain from voting on any measure they weren’t sent there to vote on.


“It’s a lot of work crammed into a very short period of time,” Rep. Camille Bennett (D-Lonoke) said of the session. “Forging relationships and getting things done is a real challenge.”

She continued, “There’s been a lot of really good bipartisan cooperation and open channels of communication…I feel very honored to be here. You can’t help but walk into that room and think of all the people that have come before you, the humility of being in that place.”

Both houses have passed most of her 19 bills. Nine are now laws.

One that didn’t make it was quite a disappointment, Bennett said.

Right now, committees can ask for a fiscal impact study on any bill that shows likely savings, expenses and how it would affect existing laws.

Her bill would have expanded that by having the study also show how probable it is that the bill, upon becoming law, would be constitutionally challenged and how much the state would likely have to spend on defending its constitutionality.

“Completely down party lines, it was defeated in committee,” Bennett said of the measure.

But she was proud of a bill that is now a law requiring DNA testing when someone is arrested for a felony offense. That law existed in 28 states already, Bennett said, and could exonerate individuals or tie them to other crimes.

And, she continued, “It’s going to cost the state almost nothing” because a grant would cover the $30 kits needed for the first year.

Another bill allows employers to provide references electronically and those hiring the former worker to check their references within six months of that worker signing a release. Both houses passed that measure.

The state is in the process of turning district courts into full-time courts, Bennett said about her next bill, which extended the deadline from 2017 to 2021 for that transition.

She said the measure would save counties money and keep current part-time judges, especially in Lonoke County, happy because several were not ready to work on a full-time basis.

One bill removes the mandatory $10 credit on a traffic ticket drivers received for wearing their seatbelts.

Municipal courts were sued over the matter because it couldn’t be proven whether drivers were wearing their seatbelts during a violation, Bennett explained.

Her bill, which was passed by both houses, would allow the credit to still be given, but it wouldn’t be automatic like before.

Another of Bennett’s bills that is now law better defines how long certain records must be kept.

And one bill, re-referred to a committee, levies a $25 fine on those who commit a violent crime in front of or to a child. The fine would go to help kids who witness or are victims of violent crimes.

Bennett said the legislature has been working as a whole to improve workforce training.
She’s helped by supporting measures that put more money into current programs and encourage two- and four-year colleges to add programs and provide scholarships for students interested in enrolling in them.

The governor, Bennett continued, has spearheaded a new criminal justice reform act that “if properly funded, it should make a huge difference, a direct, immediate difference.”

It institutes a drug court-system to provide substance-abuse treatment to those charged with crimes like possession and sets up regional detention facilities for inmates transferring to state prisons. They’re currently housed in overcrowded and underfunded county jails.

Rep. Bob Johnson (D-Jacksonville) and Rep. Donnie Copeland (R-North Little Rock), who represents a slice of Sherwood, did not return calls from The Leader by press time.

Johnson sponsored 10 bills and Copeland sponsored nine.