Special session’s lengthy proposed legislation list includes worker’s comp, Arkansas Works

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 249 views 

Highways may be the inspiration for the special session beginning May 19, but Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s call also includes 14 other items such as ending new claims in a workers’ compensation trust fund and changing the ending date for Arkansas Works.

The call includes a bill by Sen. Greg Standridge, R-Russellville, that would end the Workers’ Compensation Commission’s Death and Permanent Total Disability Trust Fund. The fund has an unfunded $130 million liability that is increasing. Standridge is proposing legislation that would close the fund January 1 to new claims while existing claims are slowly paid down over about 35 years. The 3% premium tax would remain. Meanwhile, new claims would be handled by employers and their insurers.

The Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce opposes the bill and says it will offer competing ideas in the session. It wants the financial impact on employers to be mitigated and says the issue should be addressed in a regular session, not a special session. Chamber President and CEO Randy Zook said Monday that the Chamber supports closing the fund and will present some changes during the session, some of which “are still coming together.”

Standridge said the bill already has about 75 commitments in the House and in the Senate and that he is not open to any changes.

“It is a no go with amendments,” he said. “I agreed it would be a clean bill, or it would be no bill at all.”

J.R. Davis, Hutchinson’s spokesman, said, “It was a need that needed to be addressed sooner rather than later.”

The call also allows legislators to restore the original sunset date of Dec. 31, 2021, for Arkansas Works, the state program that uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for adults with incomes up to 138% of the federal poverty level. As of the end of January, 267,590 Arkansans were eligible for coverage.

Under legislation passed during the recent fiscal session, the program was set to expire at the end of this year, but Hutchinson vetoed that date as part of an arrangement with Republican senators who oppose the program. At the time, Arkansas Works had majority support as a policy but fell just short of the three-fourths majority needed for funding. When the Legislature failed to override the veto, the 2021 ending date stood.  Some questioned if that measure will stand up in court. Changing the date through legislation is meant to address those concerns.

The call also places a one-year moratorium on placing schools in academic distress. Davis said that was to give schools a break because there have been so many changes in the past few years in various accountability measures, such as the tests students take at the end of the year.

The call also includes the Frank Broyles Publicity Rights Act of 2016, meant to protect unauthorized likenesses, images and signatures of individuals from commercial use. The sponsor, Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, passed the measure through the Legislature in the 2015 regular session, but Hutchinson vetoed it because the bill was overly broad and he had free speech concerns, Davis said. Woods said this version represents a compromise.

Davis said, “If it passes and gets to the governor’s desk, the governor will sign it.”

Woods said he is attempting to “try not to limit free speech but also protect people from being taken advantage of without their consent.” The bill was inspired by unauthorized attempts to use the likeness of University of Arkansas Athletic Director Frank Broyles.

The call also includes measures to:
• Streamline the process of filling board vacancies for levees and other improvement districts;

• Transfer the Arkansas History Commission to the Department of Arkansas Heritage, and make changes to various agencies, task forces, committees and commissions;

• Merge the Crowley’s Ridge Technical Institute in Forrest City into East Arkansas Community College, which is beside it;

• Change professional qualifications for security firms;

• Amend a law so that voters casting ballots in both school and political elections in November can vote in one place;

• Permit the release of juvenile records to those engaged in research if the Department of Human Services Division of Youth Services determines the research has value;

• Amend the offense of sexual indecency with a child;

• Amend the state’s design requirements for earthquake-resistant buildings;

• Confirm gubernatorial appointees;

• Pay the session’s expenses, including per diem payments to legislators.

Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, and chairman of the Senate Revenue and Tax Committee, questioned the “potpourri of ideas and conglomerations.”

“At what point does a special session cease to be special?” he said. “I realize that I’m not a long-time political veteran, but I just don’t see the urgency in a lot of what’s on the call. … I don’t know why, if it was this urgent and had this kind of support, why we didn’t handle it during the fiscal session when it could have been brought up with some other things. Or, if you say, well, you don’t handle that stuff in the fiscal, is any of this really going to make a difference between now and January?”

Davis said the governor placed items on the call if a request is a unique circumstance, if it requires action now, and if a legislative consensus exists.

“We feel that a majority of these issues, a large majority, have a consensus, and we’ll see what happens in committees. But again … the goal to any special session is to get in and get out, and get the people’s work done and go home,” he said.

Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, said he expects the session to end quickly. “Most of these are pretty innocuous, technical-type fixes I don’t expect there to be a lot of drama over. … I think for the most part, we’re still going to be able to get in and get out in three days,” he said.