Arkansas House speaker expects special session call Monday, with highway funding the focus

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 141 views 

The call for the May 19 special session is expected to come “some time after lunch on Monday” and will contain “anywhere between five and 15” items, Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam said Friday (May 13) in a meeting in his office with reporters.

The session’s focus will be on highways. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has presented a short-term plan that would raise about $50 million a year in order to make the state eligible for an annual $200 million federal match under the five-year federal Fixing America’s Surface Transportation Act. Hutchinson’s plan depends on tapping into surplus and rainy day funds as well as sales taxes from purchases of new and used cars. Currently, that money is used for other state needs.

Gillam said the governor’s plan will be the primary one considered.

“It will be relatively close to what his plan is, even if there’s a minor tweak or something,” he said. “But we’re going to go with his plan, which definitely takes care of our immediate needs and allows us the time to kind of keep looking at options that might be beneficial for us down the road.”

The legislation would, for the first time, devote general revenues for highways. Gillam said legislators want more regular reports from the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department.

“It in no way allows us to micromanage the individual projects themselves. It’s just literally Q and A reporting that’s going to be in there, but there’s also a component of us being able to review kind of their funding procedure that they use,” he said.

Other legislators have proposed plans that more comprehensively address the need for more highway funding. Four Republican senators have proposed a gas tax increase of five cents per gallon in 2018, rising to eight cents the next year, with most if not all that money eventually offset by cuts elsewhere.

The plan requires a three-fourths majority for passage, and Hutchinson has said he opposes any tax increase for highways in this session. Gillam said many members likely have not discussed the plan with the senators, making it unlikely the plan will gain support in time for the session. He said he has not talked to enough members to analyze the head count.

One alternative Gillam said would be “in the mix” would be one by Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock. In fiscal year 2018, Davis proposes a $25 million income tax cut and a four-cent diesel tax increase, which would raise about $25 million and still require $20 million in one-time money to qualify for the federal match. In fiscal year 2019, he proposes another $25 million income tax cut and another $25 million diesel tax increase, permanently raising the $50 million the state would need for the match.

The governor can tailor the call for the special session so narrowly that little can be considered outside his own proposals without a two-thirds vote by legislators to consider anything else.

“I think that between what (Senate) President (Pro Tempore Jonathan) Dismang, (R-Searcy) has relayed to him from the Senate, what I’ve relayed to him from the House, I think that he’ll include that in the equation,” Gillam said.

Gillam said other items likely to be in the call include legislation by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, that would make it easier for counties to reconstitute defunct levee boards; a technical rewrite of legislation related to securities firms’ hiring practices; and a change in Pulaski County election rules that say that school elections and political elections must be run separately. He said he and Dismang also are proposing legislation that would “clean up” the state’s long list of task forces. Some require appointments but no longer meet and need to be ended. A task force on teacher insurance, meanwhile, needs to be extended.

Also potentially on the call will be ending the Arkansas Workers’ Compensation Commission’s Death and Permanent Total Disability Trust Fund. Arkansas is the last state to have such a fund, and it has a $130 million liability. Sen. Greg Standridge, R-Russellville, has proposed legislation that would close the fund to new members and then pay off the claims as scheduled. Gillam said he has heard “a tremendous amount of support” for ending the fund, but the question will be how urgently the issue needs to be addressed.

The Arkansas State Chamber of of Commerce has long supported closing the fund but opposes it this year without provisions that help businesses deal with the increased insurance costs they could incur.

“Everybody’s scratching their heads about that, but just because the Chamber’s against it doesn’t mean it’s a bad idea is kind of what I keep hearing from a lot of members,” Gillam said.

Gillam said he received a couple of phone calls from House members after the U.S. Departments of Justice and Education sent a guidance letter saying schools should allow students to use restrooms and locker rooms matching the gender to which they identify. He did not receive any calls after Hutchinson issued a statement Friday saying school districts should disregard the guidance.

“I think for the most part, most of our folks are really kind of focused on next week and the here and the now of the special session, and so we’ll see how that goes over the weekend. That may all change. … I haven’t heard of anybody preparing that legislation, but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening for ’17, but just nobody has brought that to my attention to this point,” he said.

Despite the growing list of legislation being proposed, Gillam insisted, “We’re still going to get in and out in three days. On that third day, I think President Dismang and I have been very clear to the governor and to the members that we’re going to get out in three days, and what’s done is done, and what’s not can wait until January.”