The pace of bill filing is about to increase as Arkansas legislators realize this year’s legislative session is about a third of the way completed, Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam said Monday (Feb. 6).
With the session about a month old, Gillam, R-Judsonia, told reporters that “folks are starting to kind of figure out there will be an end date, that the ambiguity of when we’re going to be getting out is starting to kind of lessen.” He said the Legislature could adjourn in early April.
“I think they’re starting to realize, OK, we’ve gotten a pretty significant amount of some of the big ticket items handled, and the budget’s progressing, and so I think a lot of folks at the end of last week and today have started in conversations to realize, OK, on a 90-day timeline, we’re a third of the way through,” he said. “And so they’ve started kind of realizing that we really probably were closer to a 90-day timeline than what we might have thought two months ago.”
Wednesday is the deadline for legislators to file proposed constitutional amendments. Legislators can refer three each session, but leaders have said they would prefer to limit that number to two this year. On Monday, House members passed House Resolution 1010 by Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, which describes how the House and Senate will each produce one constitutional amendment to be referred to the voters this year, with a third amendment possible if both chambers approve it by a two-thirds vote. It passed 94-0.
In other business, House members passed House Bill 1041 by Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, which would prevent court rulings from being based on foreign laws when those laws would deprive the affected parties of basic American rights. It passed, 62-34, with four voting present. In response to questions from Rep. Les Eaves, R-Searcy, Smith said there have been few examples where foreign laws and customs have been used in American court decisions, but the Legislature should be proactive. He said such laws would assure immigrants that the practices they fled in oppressive countries wouldn’t follow them here.
Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, said she had voted against a similar bill in 2015 and would do so again even after being criticized in her recent campaign. She said the bill fixes a problem that does not exist, could have unintended consequences and would result in litigation.
House members also voted 87-4 with 1 voting present for House Bill 1279 by Gillam, which clarifies that in the event of a vacancy in a U.S. Senate seat, the governor appoints the successor until the next general election.
Gillam said afterward that the law was needed because of a conflict between the Arkansas Constitution and a law passed many years ago. Under the Constitution, the governor is to fill any vacancy until the next general election when “no mode is provided by the Constitution and laws for filling such vacancy.” According to the statute, in a Senate race, the governor’s replacement serves until the next general election if that election is less than 12 months away. Otherwise, a special election would occur no more than 120 days after the vacancy occurs.
Gillam said the issue arose late last year when there was talk of U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton moving to a position in the Trump administration, and the law needed to be clarified. He said mirroring the constitutional language was “a safer place to land” than the statute.
House Bill 1401, also by Gillam, changes Amendment 94, which among other provisions limits lobbyists’ gifts to legislators. After the expected amendments on the Senate side, the bill will allow legislators to be given short, ground-based trips to informational tours or briefings without them having to report those as gifts. The bill also will allow the U.S. and foreign governments to pay for travel for official duties, such as trade missions to Cuba. Gillam said when legislators traveled to meet with former Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia Burwell, even the U.S. government could not give them a ride from the airport. It also reduces from 30 to 10 days the amount of time legislators have to return or pay for gifts received unintentionally. It passed 83-8 with 2 voting present.
Gillam said the bill came in response to events where legislators attended a committee meeting at Blytheville and were required to drive their own vehicles to the Big River Steel facility, and attended a committee meeting in Batesville and were required to drive their own vehicles to an experimental station, resulting in some of them getting lost. House Bill 1401 would allow entities to transport them by van or shuttle bus. It also would make it possible for travel expenses to be paid while participating in a U.S. government-sponsored event or when working on economic development projects with foreign governments in countries such as Cuba or China.
Rep. Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, one of the authors of the ethics amendment, spoke against the bill, saying it provides a loophole for lobbyists to pay for things citizens voted against when they approved the amendment. But Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, who presented the bill, said it doesn’t change what the voters approved.
House members also passed:
• House Bill 1273 by Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, which would require the process of adding or removing monuments to the State Capitol grounds to start with the Legislature. It passed 91-0.
• House Bill 1261 by Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North Little Rock, which would change the state’s poet laureate position from a lifetime appointment to a four-year term and change the makeup of the committee that does the appointment. Wing presented his bill by speaking in verse. It passed 96-0.
• House Bill 1224 by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, which would prohibit elected officials from campaigning for more than one district or township office. It passed 91-0.
• House Bill 1361 by Rep. Nelda Speaks, R-Mountain Home, which would add mental abuse as grounds for separation or divorce in “covenant” marriages that were created by a law passed in 2001. It passed 69-5, with 8 voting present.