Lawmakers officially adjourned from the 90th General Assembly’s regular session on Wednesday, but not before swearing in a new member to the Arkansas Senate.
After 81 days of business and nearly three weeks of recess, the state legislature accepted a motion to “sine die,” the formal adjournment move that prevents lawmakers from reconvening until the next fiscal session in February 2016 or unless the governor calls for a special session.
In the Senate, the upper chamber swore in its newest member, State Sen. Greg Standridge, a Republican from Russellville, who will represent District 16. He fills a seat vacated by former Sen. Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, who was tapped by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to serve as his chief of staff.
Senators passed a rule change that will eliminate a provision prohibiting a Senator from serving as President Pro Tempore for more than one term. Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, who made the motion for the rule change, said it would allow Senate President Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, to serve a second term as the Senate leader if he chooses to.
Dismang told Talk Business & Politics that he has not decided yet if he will seek another term as Senate President.
House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, has declared he will run for the speaker’s post for the 2017 session.
Gillam thanked lawmakers for their work throughout sometimes contentious debate.
“The success we have had has been due to a total team effort … It has been an honor to serve you as your speaker,” Gillam said.
After adjourning the session, House members met as a caucus to discuss a proposed rule change on reimbursements.
The House adopted the rule change, which does away with the roughly $14,400 a year that House members receive in reimbursable expenses.
Rep. Bill Gossage, R-Ozark, said the changes were part of work done by the Independent Citizens Commission on legislative salaries. Earlier this year, the commission suggested that legislators should be paid $39,400 a year, up from the current $15,869.
The changes were also due to a new state law.
The law, Act 556 of 2015, sets a $3,600 reimbursement rate for committee chairs, as well as House and Senate leadership; a $2,400 rate for vice chairs and a $1,800 rate for subcommittee chairs.
Rep. Joe Jett, D-Success, said he believed the session was productive, with lawmakers bringing different ideas to the table.
Jett said lawmakers had a smooth ride, but faced some speed bumps in the waning days of the session, in particular, debate over House Bill 1228.
“I think it was a decent session,” Jett said overall.
While the session ended Wednesday, Jett said lawmakers are expecting some sort of special session or multiple sessions later this year to address Medicaid funding, highways and prisons.
Jett, who chaired the House Revenue and Taxation committee this session, said the Health Care Reform Task Force would work with “due diligence” to come up with a solution to the issue.
However, Jett said a major part of the health care puzzle involves a federal court case, King v. Burwell. The case, which centers around subsidies and the federal Healthcare Exchange, is expected to be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court by the end of June.
“It is major,” Jett said. “If they rule against it, it would change the dynamics of the state budget.”
A first-term lawmaker, Rep. Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro, said the Revenue and Taxation committee did a good job on the tax cut issue.
The legislature approved a key part of the legislative agenda for Gov. Asa Hutchinson – a $100 million tax cut, geared toward taxpayers who make $21,000 to $75,000 a year.
Tosh said another bill that reinstated the capital gains exemption rate to 50%, which was signed into law, will also provide some certainty in the tax code.
Tosh said he was proud of two bills that he helped push through the legislature that became law.
One bill, House Bill 1240, would provide civil liability protections for people who use a weapon to defend themselves or someone else.
“It is a landmark bill. I spoke with the Bureau of Legislative Research and they said it is the only one of its kind in the country,” Tosh said. “It will strengthen the Second Amendment and the thing I am most proud of is that it received bi-partisan support.”
Another bill, House Bill 1779, will base funding for the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship on semester hours, instead of incremental amounts for students, Tosh said.
“The last thing we need to do is penalize our students for working hard,” Tosh said.
Sen. John Cooper, R-Jonesboro, said Wednesday the session provided an opportunity for several good bills to be approved.
Cooper said he supported the tax cut proposals brought through the legislature, as well as a bill he sponsored, Senate Bill 4.
The bill, which became law, will allow terminally ill patients to have the right to try experimental treatments for diseases.
Cooper said he wanted two other bills to be approved which were not: Senate Bill 229 (the American Laws for American Courts act) and Senate Bill 845, which would have expanded the use of telemedicine in healthcare.
Cooper said the courts bill would have sought to limit the influence of foreign law in state courts, especially with family court.
The telemedicine bill was sent to an interim committee for study, Cooper said.
Most lawmakers are preparing themselves for a special session later this year, Cooper said, noting officials do not know which issues will be brought up first.
Cooper said he is also proud of the prison reform bill that became law this session.
The bill puts more emphasis on attempting to lower the nearly 40% recidivism rate among criminals in the state, Cooper said.
A plan to also create intermediate facilities, where prisoners who are about to be released can receive job training, is a “good, right step”, Cooper said.