House and Senate pass governor’s tax cut plan, House OKs abortion-banning bill, dinosaur legislation

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 841 views 

Two hotly-debated measures that have the governor’s stamp of approval were overwhelmingly approved Monday by the Arkansas House of Representatives during an abbreviated day of legislative meetings at the State Capitol.

The first bill, House Bill 1159, is the house version of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s $50.5 million tax cut plan, introduced in early December. On the House floor, Rep. Mathew Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, reiterated his same presentation made to the House Revenue and Taxation Committee last week that the governor’s plan would aid more than 657,000 million Arkansas workers that make less than $21,000.

“We are sent here to do the best we can for the citizens of Arkansas. This tax bill gets 1,346,000 Arkansans a tax cut in the last 25-months,” Pitsch said of his bill and Hutchinson’s $105 million tax cut passed two years ago to aid middle-income wage earners.

Immediately after a brief discussion on the merits of the governor’s proposal compared to a Democratic Party-led earned income tax credit (EITC) measure, HB 1159 easily passed by a vote of 90 to 2, and five present. Two representatives, Rep. Josh Miller, R-Heber Springs, and Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, did not vote. Fite has been absent for several days due to illness.

Immediately after HB 1159 was approved, Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, requested that a vote on his competing tax cut legislation for low-income wage earners be delayed until he had a chance to meet with Hutchinson and see if they could find a compromise on the competing bills. Sabin said that meeting was scheduled for Monday afternoon, where he and other Democratic supporters would make a pitch to the governor for HB 1161, known as the “Working Families Opportunity Credit.” That program mirrors the federal Earned Income Tax Credit program that has been an integral part of the U.S. tax code for nearly 30 years.

If enacted by the legislature, Arkansas would be the 27th state to implement a state EITC program, which would impose a 5% tax on the amount equal to the credit allowed to an Arkansas taxpayer under the federal EITC program.

“I do think … my proposal would fit seamlessly with the (governor’s), and I think there are even ways to reduce the overall fiscal impact,” Sabin said of HB 1161, which he said would cost $10 million less than Pitsch’s bill. “But I would like to save those specifics for our meeting this afternoon.”

Sabin acknowledged that the governor has remained committed to his own proposal, but said he wanted to advance the discussion on tax cut policy in the closed door meetings. Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said the governor would meet with Sabin and other mostly Democratic Party supporters Monday, but added that the governor still strongly backs HB 1159.

If there is no compromise, Sabin said he would ask the House Speaker to run his bill at a later date. Rep. Joe Jett, R-Success, chair of the House panel that debates tax policy, said he does not believe lawmakers will support two low-income tax cut bills at a cost of $90 million to taxpayers.

The Senate, meanwhile, passed the governor’s $50.5 million tax cut, 33-0, with two not voting. Senate Bill 115 by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, otherwise known as the Tax Reform and Relief Act of 2017, would reduce tax rates for Arkansans with incomes below $21,000.

The tax cut would aid 657,000 Arkansans who earn between $0 and $20,000 annually. Of that total, which is roughly 44% of the state’s working population, nearly 120,000 taxpayers in the lowest bracket between $0 and $4,299 would be taken off the tax rolls completely. That bracket currently pays a 0.9% rate.

Hendren told senators the cut would help those making $8-$11 an hour – waitresses, factory personnel, entry level workers, and college students.

The bill also creates the Arkansas Tax Reform and Relief Legislative Task Force, which will consist of 16 legislators who will consider how to modify and simplify the state’s tax code and make Arkansas tax laws more competitive before the 2019 session. Its first meeting will be within 30 days of adjournment.

During the debate, Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, asked if Hendren could assure him that budget surplus dollars would be available in future years to help the state meet its match for federal highway dollars. As a result of a 2016 legislative session, that match depends in part on those surplus dollars being available. Hendren said he couldn’t offer that assurance but said the bill won’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2019, giving the state time to adjust the budget during the 2018 fiscal session. He said, if needed, the surplus could be produced by cutting spending.

“For a change, we think about taxpayers first, and then we think about expenditures second,” Hendren said.

If the first plank of the governor’s $5.5 billion budget plan is passed this week, Hutchinson may soon have two bills that will be popular with his GOP constituents. Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, brought to the House floor legislation that would outlaw “dismemberment” abortions in Arkansas, which the GOP described as the fetus being extracted from the womb one piece at a time.

Last week, Mayberry’s HB 1032 passed the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, and Gov. Hutchinson on Sunday told marchers at the annual March for Life that he would sign the bill outlawing the most common form of second trimester abortion, known in the medical community as “dilation and evacuation.”

When presenting his bill, Mayberry emphasized that his legislation does not prevent abortions in Arkansas, but would address what he called a “barbaric procedure” to end a death of an unborn child between weeks 12 and 19 of a pregnancy.

“(This) procedure is one that no civilized society should embrace, and I would hope we would say that we are not going to do it,” said Mayberry. “This is based on model legislation from National Right to Life and it has been passed … in six states, those being Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Mississippi and West Virginia.”

After no one spoke in opposition to Mayberry’s bill, it easily passed by a vote of 78 to 10. There were two present and 10 members did not vote.

On Sunday, Hutchinson was one of numerous Arkansas elected officials participating in the annual march.  Lt. Governor Tim Griffin led the crowd in the Pledge of Allegiance, and three of the state’s other constitutional officers were present: Auditor Andrea Lea, Treasurer Dennis Milligan, and Land Commissioner John Thurston.

In Monday’s session, there were several other measures approved by House, including a gaggle of four “clean-up” bills (HB 1061, 1062, 1063 and 1064) sponsored by Rep. Douglas House, R-North Little Rock, that deal with military judicial and criminal affairs in Arkansas.

HB 1064 would make it a more serious crime in Arkansas to impersonate a member of the military. House said local citizens have been caught in recent disasters in Arkansas pretending to be National Guard personnel and taking charge of disaster response events.

In a light moment on the House floor, lawmakers also unanimously passed a resolution making the “Arkansaurus Fridayi” the official state dinosaur. Sponsor Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said a student contacted him and made a request to make the official designation after learning that Arkansas did not have such an official designation.

Arkansas is now the 10th state to tag an official state dinosaur. According to HCR 1003, Arkansaurus fridayi was discovered in a gravel pit near Lockesburg in August 1972 by Joe B. Friday. The site was later studied by Professor James Harrison Quinn of the University of Arkansas in 1973 and by paleontologist ReBecca Hunt since 2003.

(Talk Business & Politics reporter Steve Brawner contributed to this report.)