Date: January 18, 2007
From State Representative Lindsley Smith
87th General Assembly convenes, prepares to answer state’s challenges
LITTLE ROCK – With the state and nation facing tough economic times, the 87th General Assembly has convened in regular session in Little Rock amid the challenges of continuing, and improving, vital services counted on by Arkansans.
All 100 members of the House and 35 members of the Senate were sworn into office on the session’s opening day, January 12. A short time later, the House confirmed Rep. Robbie Wills of Conway as the new speaker.
Having grown up in, and working at, his grandfather’s tourist attraction, Pickles Gap, north of Conway, Wills in his speaker’s address recalled the old wooden-block ‘Do-Nothing’ contraption. He implored his colleagues to not sit around and do nothing, but to work hard, to be a “Do-Something” and give their best in the few years available to them to serve in the House.
Wills said he supported a proposed tax increase on cigarettes and smokeless tobacco to pay for a statewide trauma network, a second medical school, and other health projects. Referring to voters’ approval last fall of a state lottery with proceeds to pay for college scholarships, Wills said he will encourage his colleagues to establish an independent commission to operate the lottery and be accountable to the public and to make sure scholarships are amply funded and widely available to any Arkansan who wants to go to college and meets eligibility requirements, also to be determined this session.
The next day, in his State of the State address, Gov. Mike Beebe made similar pleas, specifically calling for an increase of 56 cents per pack of cigarettes and a still-unspecified tax increase on smokeless tobacco. Together they’d raise $88 million a year, in addition to some $90 million in federal matches for certain projects. Beebe said the state’s share alone is enough to create a statewide trauma system that would improve emergency rooms in hospitals across the state ($25 million), establish a satellite campus of UAMS in Northwest Arkansas ($3 million), and increase funding for 59 community health centers ($15 million), home-based health ($5 million), and the ArKids First insurance program for children ($3.6 million).
Passing the tax increase on tobacco isn’t a given in either chamber, in part because approval requires a three-fourths majority. Nor is the governor’s call for a further 1-cent reduction on the state sales tax on groceries, currently at 3 cents. Some lawmakers wonder if the state can afford the resulting $30 million reduction in general revenue, and others say their constituents don’t believe they’ve seen much benefit from the 3-cent cut in grocery taxes two years ago. The governor said not taxing groceries is more of a moral obligation than a tax-relief goal.
A budget surplus of $300 million is expected by June 30, the last day of this fiscal year – a far cry from the $843 million surplus of two years ago that resulted in the biggest tax cuts in Arkansas history. That cushion isn’t available this year, but the governor said it’s still enough to replenish the quick-action closing account to land industry and boost school funding by $234 per student.
Ceremonial duties and organizational tasks take up every legislative session’s first few days, and calendars on the House and Senate floors are light until bills start flowing through committees. Both chambers also recessed for Martin Luther King Jr./Robert E. Lee Day and for the inauguration of President Barack Obama because so many lawmakers and state officials had made plans to attend.
As for this week, I wanted you to know that this coming Wednesday (Jan. 21) Fayetteville resident Jack Makins will be testifying before the Aging, Children, Youth, Legislative, and Military Affairs Committee at 10 am for Arkansas to recognize Thomas Paine Day. If the committee passes this bill, it will come before the full House on Thursday afternoon. As you recall, despite his religion and religious beliefs not being the reason for this day of recognition, but his major contributions to the founding of our nation and securing rights and freedom, this bill failed passage in the last session when Paine's religious beliefs and his writing "Age of Reason", which advocated the right of every person to have freedom of conscious and religious liberty, were called into question. Such issues have come up this session as well. Unlike what has been alleged even today in Arkansas, Paine was not atheist, and it should not matter if he was. I leave you with words of Paine in "The American Crisis, Number 1", Dec. 19, 1776, that General George Washington had his officers read to the troops to inspire them during the Revolutionary War:
"THESE are the times that try men's souls. The summer soldier and the sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of their country; but he that stands by it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman. Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods; and it would be strange indeed if so celestial an article as FREEDOM should not be highly rated. Britain, with an army to enforce her tyranny, has declared that she has a right (not only to TAX) but "to BIND us in ALL CASES WHATSOEVER" and if being bound in that manner, is not slavery, then is there not such a thing as slavery upon earth. Even the expression is impious; for so unlimited a power can belong only to God." (paragraph one)