Thursday, March 26, 2009

Lindsley Smith reports from the Arkansas General Assembly for March 26, 2009

Date: March 17, 2009
Due to the session moving so fast over the past two weeks, this update spans acouple of weeks of review of legislation.Expanding the state’s health insurance program for children capped the Arkansas House of Representatives’ ninth week of work, and lawmakers are nearing a vote on bills establishing the structure of the state lottery and the scholarship program that will be funded by lottery revenues.
The expansion of the ArKids First insurance program will bring coverage to 8,000 more children from low-income families. Some 70,000 Arkansas children have no insurance. House Bill 1700, by Rep. Robert S. Moore Jr. of Arkansas City, increases the income eligibility limit from the current 200 percent of the federal poverty level for a family of four ($44,100) to 250 percent ($55,125) of that poverty level. (The median family income in Arkansas for a family of four is just over $52,000).
The recent tax increase on tobacco will pay for the expansion. Subject to federal approval, the program also will be eligible for a 3-to-1 match in federal funds, official say. The bill goes to the Senate.
The House and Senate, meanwhile, have identical bills setting up the lottery and scholarships, and passage in both chambers will happen quickly. Leaders have been working on the legislation almost since voters approved a lottery last November. The bills are HB 1002, by Speaker of the House Robbie Wills of Conway, and Senate Bill 26, by Sen. Terry Smith of Hot Springs. Wills said lottery tickets could be on sale before the end of the year and the first scholarships will be awarded in the fall of 2010.
The House approved HB1576, by Rep. Lindsley Smith of Fayetteville, which is a bill to adjust for inflation the amount in controversy regarding wage disputes heard and decided by the Director of the Department of Labor. This law is important in allowing the Dept. of Labor to handle and settle labor disputes and is a law that was enacted in the 1930s. The amount in controversy has not been adjusted for inflation since 1973, and this bill will do much for helping employees get their due payment for work performed that was not compensated by the employer.
The House approved legislation restricting “Toughman” contests and similar fights in Arkansas, such as requiring adequate medical staff and setting up class-and-weight divisions for fighters. The bill stems from the death a couple of years ago of a “Toughman” contestant following a bout in Texarkana. Rep. Steve Harrelson of Texarkana, who sponsored the bill, said he worked with organizers of the bouts in drawing up the legislation and offered it as an alternative to banning the fights altogether, as some states have done. The bill goes to the Senate.
The House also approved HB 1326, by Rep. Lindsley Smith of Fayetteville, allowing citizens to have their attorneys’ fees paid in successful lawsuits against a government body in the most egregious violations of the state Freedom of Information Act.
Also during the week:
The governor signed into law a package of bills, now Acts 321 and 323, requiring more transparency and accountability at the state’s public colleges and universities on the salaries and benefits paid to top administrators and setting a cap on merit scholarships awarded to students solely at the discretion of college presidents. Rep. Bill Abernathy of Mena presented those bills in the House. A related bill, HB 1589, by Rep. Johnnie Roebuck of Arkadelphia, says all reports required of colleges and universities by the Department of Higher Education shall be posted online by the department, easily accessible by citizens. That bill has cleared both chambers and is now with the governor.
Final preparations are being made for votes on two significant tax cuts. One would lop off another 1 percent in the state sales tax on groceries, from the current 3 percent to 2 percent. The other cuts the state sales tax on energy consumed by manufacturers by three-fourths of a percent. The energy cut is aimed at saving jobs. Lawmakers two years ago cut the tax from 6 percent to the current 4 percent. State finance officials say the tax cut for manufacturers will reduce state general revenue by $9.6 million a year. The tax cut on groceries will cost about $30 million in state general revenues.
The House approved HB 1846 and HB 1847, both by Arkansas City’s Moore, to use revenue received by the state Game and Fish Commission for natural gas leases for a pilot program and grants for the development of wildlife observation trails and wildlife recreation facilities. The maximum for a single grant would be $100,000. The Game and Fish Commission recently signed leases with natural gas companies operating in the Fayetteville shale. The bills go to the Senate.
The House approved HB 1837, by Rep. J R Rogers of Walnut Ridge, to name a stretch of U.S. 67 – from Newport to Walnut Ridge – “Rock ‘n’ Roll Highway 67,” in tribute to the area’s place in history during the early days of rock ‘n roll when Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and other legends-to-be frequented clubs along the highway. The bill is aimed at boosting economic development and tourism as much as recognizing history. The bill goes to the Senate.
The deadline to file bills has passed. The House and Senate this year filed a combined 2,285 bills. Members filed 2,816 in 2007 and 3,176 in 2005, according to the Bureau of Legislative Research.
A ban on the sale of “novelty” lighters is now Act 329 of 2009. Many of those lighters are built to resemble cartoon characters, animals and even fire trucks and attract the attention of children. The legislation was prompted by a fatal house fire started by children playing with novelty lighters. Rep. George Overbey Jr. of Lamar presented the bill in the House
The House honored the life and contributions and mourned the passing of Jim Jackson and Nick Masullo in Resolutions sponsored by Rep. Lindsley Smith.
The House approved HB 1939, by Rep. R.D. “Rick” Saunders of Hot Springs, to give film production companies a 15-percent rebate on production and post-production costs for films made in the state. Companies also would get a 10-percent rebate for hiring “below-the-line” employees (including casting assistants, costume designers, gaffers, grips, production assistants, set construction and design staff) who are full-time Arkansas residents. Movie makers would have to spend more than $50,000 within six months to qualify. If the bill is approved in the Senate and signed into law, it would leave Delaware as the only state in the union without an incentive package for film production companies.
The House approved HB 1806, by Rep. Larry Cowling of Foreman, to make the pecan the state’s official nut and HB 2193, by Rep. Beverly Pyle of Cedarville, to make the Cynthiana grape the state’s official grape.
Date: March 22, 2009
In closing out the 10th week of the session, the House gave final approval to House Bill 1111, by Rep. Tracy Pennartz of Fort Smith, to cut the 1-cent-per-card tax on bingo games operated by charity to three-tenths of a cent. The original bill sought to eliminate the tax, but the amendment for the three-tenths of a cent will retain enough revenue to pay the expenses of the state Department of Finance and Administration in regulating the games. The bill goes to the governor.
On the lottery front, the House is one step from approving the Senate’s bill, and the Senate is one step from approving the House’s bill, filed by Speaker Robbie Wills of Conway. Passage is certain for both, as is the governor’s signature. The sale of lottery tickets could begin before the end of the year, and the first scholarship could be awarded for the fall semester of 2010.
In the meantime, a nine-member lottery commission will be established, with the governor, the Speaker of the House, and the Senate president pro tempore each selecting three members. That commission will hire a lottery director. Together, they’ll decide what sort of games the Arkansas lottery will consist of, including multi-state games such as Powerball. A legislative oversight committee also will be formed.
The size of the scholarships will be determined by how much revenue is generated by the lottery. Those estimates range from $55 million a year to more than $100 million. As we stand now, the scholarships will range from $2,500 a year to $6,000 a year to attend a four-year university. For two-year schools, the scholarship range will be from $1,250 a year to $3,000. Eligibility requirements include a 2.5 grade point average to get – and then retain – a scholarship. They also will be made available to nontraditional students.
The legislation also sets a two-year ban on former lottery commissioners from becoming lobbyists for the lottery industry and sets an ethics code for commissioners and employees. Voters approved the lottery in November, and lawmakers have been working on lottery legislation ever since

The House passed four bills by Rep. Lindsley Smith of Fayetteville. HB1475 and HB1476 establish funding for the homeless, victims of domestic violence, and other indigent and at-risk individuals who are in need of birth certificates and legal identification to establish themselves in housing, school, or work. These bills will help thousands of poor individuals with a jump-start to integrate themselves back into society after a traumatic or other event that caused them, and very likely their children, to lose their necessary items of identification.
Rep. Lindsley Smith also passed HB1552 out of the House. HB1552 provides that employers are to allow breastfeeding mothers the opportunity for taking a sanitary unpaid break in order to pump breastmilk to save for their babies for when they get off of work. In Arkansas, a large number of nursing mothers stop three months after giving birth because they have to go back to work to earn an income and the difficulties of pumping at work require mothers to stop nursing their babies. This legislation helps mothers be able to go back to work to earn money for the family without having to give up nursing their babies
Rep. Smith also passed HB2009 out of the House and it heads to the Senate. This bill establishes the Arkansas Heritage Trails System.
The House gave final approval to Senate Bill 875 to reduce the sales tax on energy consumed by manufacturers by three-fourths of a cent. Rep. Mike Burris of Malvern presented the bill in the House as a way to save Arkansans jobs. It now goes to the governor. The identical HB 1624, by Rep. David Dunn of Forrest City, has cleared the House but remains in the Senate. The bill will save manufacturers up to $9 million a year.
All 100 members of the House were co-sponsors of the bill to cut the state sales tax on groceries from 3 percent to 2 percent, leaving no suspense on the outcome of the vote on SB 88. Rep. R.D. “Rick” Saunders of Hot Springs presented the bill in the House. Now signed into law, the cut takes effect July 1 and reduces state general revenue by about $30 million a year. Lawmakers two years ago cut the tax from 6 percent to 3 percent as part of the largest tax cut in Arkansas history.

Also during the week, the House:
Approved HB 2007, by Rep. Barry Hyde of North Little Rock, to require state colleges and universities to go smoke-free by August 1, 2010. About half of the taxpayer-supported schools have already gone smoke-free, and the others have no objections and wanted the legislature’s stamp of approval, according to supporters.

· Approved SB 38 to raise from 14 years old to 16 the minimum age for operating a personal watercraft, maybe better known as jet-skis. Rep. Steve Harrelson of Texarkana presented the bill in the House. It goes to the governor
Approved HB 1256, by Rep. Dan Greenberg of Little Rock, to make it a misdemeanor to be an active and intentional spectator at illegal street races. Those who “promote and assist” the race could face Class B misdemeanor charges, punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $500. The bill had been amended so that an “accidental” observer isn’t punished. The bill goes to the Senate.
Approved HB 1578, by Rep. Dawn Creekmore, setting restrictions on sex offenders whose crimes involved computers. The bill allows judges to restrict or even forbid computer usage by those offenders and limits those offenders to one e-mail address or one screen name. There’s an exception for computer usage required at work, and if the computer is provided by the employer.
pproved HB 1473, also by Creekmore, requiring the collection of a DNA sample from those who are arrested or charged with capital murder, first-degree murder, kidnapping or first- and second-degree assault. Current law requires a DNA sample only after a person is convicted of a felony.
Approved SB 312 to provide defibrillators to public schools, for the resuscitation of heart attack victims. The bill is in honor of a Little Rock youth who collapsed and died during a high school basketball game. The devices will be paid for by the recent increase in tobacco taxes. The bill goes to the governor.
Approved HB 1978, by Robert S. Moore Jr. of Arkansas City, to provide a tax rebate for rehabilitating historic structures in Arkansas. The rebate amounts to 25 percent of a project’s cost up to the first $500,000 on income-producing property and up to the first $100,000 on non-income-producing property. There’s a cap of $4 million on total rebates awarded in a fiscal year. The bill goes to the Senate.
Lawmakers on the House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs committees also have begun their study of proposed constitutional amendments. Up to three proposed amendments on general topics can be referred to a vote of the people each general election. The next general election is in November 2010.

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