Tobacco funds would go to disability services under bill, Senate OKs medical marijuana rule change

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 242 views 

The Arkansas House of Representatives on Thursday (Jan. 19) passed a bill that would redirect unused tobacco settlement funds to provide services to waiting individuals with developmental disabilities.

House Bill 1033 by Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-East End, would amend the Tobacco Settlement Proceeds Act, an initiated act passed by voters in 2000 that provided insurance coverage through the now obsolete AR Health Networks program. Currently $8.5 million of the tobacco settlement money each year is not being spent on those individuals because they now receive coverage under Arkansas Works, the program that purchases private health insurance for lower-income Arkansans.

Under the bill, that money would be redirected to reduce a list of about 3,000 individuals with developmental disabilities waiting to receive home-based services. Some have been on the list since 2007. Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed the idea in September. The annual funds have been accruing and, if used to address the waiting list, would be matched by about $20 million in federal funds annually. The combined funds could reduce the waiting list by about 500-900 individuals, Mayberry said.

The measure required a two-thirds vote. It passed, 93-0.

In other business, the Senate voted 27-0 in favor of House Bill 1026 by Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, which would extend rulemaking deadlines for the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment to 180 days from the current 120 days after the issue passed in the November election. House has told lawmakers that the 120 days allowed by the amendment are unworkable under the state’s Administrative Procedure Act, which requires time for public comment. The bill applies to the Department of Health, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, and the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission, which was created by the amendment to regulate the licensure of cultivation and dispensary facilities.

The House Revenue and Taxation Committee on Thursday approved two tax-cutting bills, House Bill 1069 by Rep. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, and House Bill 1161 by Rep. Warwick Sabin, R-Little Rock. Pitsch’s bill would enact Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s $50.5 million tax cut for lower-income Arkansans. Sabin’s would provide $40 million in earned income tax credits for the same population.

After the House adjourned, Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, said the full House likely would consider both bills on Monday. He said he was inclined to vote for Pitsch’s bill but would visit with both sponsors over the weekend. He said he did not know where the members stand on the two bills, but added, “I hear more conversation about Rep. Pitsch’s bill than I have Rep. Sabin’s to this point, but I don’t where that actually quantifies out as far as vote count.”

He said he is inclined to believe only one will pass, but it’s possible both will.

“I think a lot of the tax cut discussions and things will probably kind of subside after next week, and we’ll be able to move forward with a few other areas of concern,” he said.

Gillam said he was comfortable that the Legislature can enact tax cuts and the governor’s balanced budget after several months this fiscal year when revenues did not equal projections.

“We’ve seen a little bit more data from the first part of December, and I’ve got a greater comfort level at where we’re going to be at with the budget and being able to take care of our obligations,” he said.

The House and Senate will reconvene Monday after being out of session Friday to coincide with the inauguration of President Donald Trump.