Lawmakers wrap-up busiest day of session, wine and guns on campus among more than 40 bills debated

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 533 views 

As the Arkansas Legislature on Monday (Feb. 27) entered its eighth week of the 91st General Assembly, lawmakers on both sides of the State Capitol sifted through a mountain of bills with only seven days left ahead of the deadline to file new legislation.

On the Senate side, House Bill 1249 sponsored by Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, was re-referred back to the chamber’s Judiciary Committee where it is expected to undergo another set of revisions the sponsor hopes will satisfy all parties involved. The controversial legislation, which has become known as the “guns on campus” bill, was amended a week ago following a committee compromise that would allow any permit holder 25 years or older, including students, to carry a weapon on campus after undergoing active shooter training and paying a nominal fee.

After the Senate voted 21-10 to send the bill back to committee for a sixth amendment, Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, said he hoped this would be the last time the bill had to go through that process.

“I think after it comes out of committee this time – and this is the commitment that I made to the people up there (in the Senate) – I won’t let it come back out … unless it is the best bill that we can actually vote on,” Garner said. “We will not go through this process again. I will not have it go back or anything else. I am going to bring them a bill that they can vote “yes” or “no” and that’s what we are going to do.”

On Feb. 16, the Senate added a training requirement by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock. That revision, which some members said had hostile intent, would have required concealed carry permit holders to obtain at least 16 hours of active shooter training designed by the Arkansas State Police. The amendment also expanded the list of situations where colleges and universities can prohibit possession of a firearm, including numerous types of meetings, student health and counseling services, and events where the school’s governing body votes to prohibit it.

However, Garner attached another amendment on Tuesday as a compromise that expanded the permit requirement to anyone 25 years or older, including students. The original bill and Hutchinson’s amendment only allowed faculty and staff to possess a firearm. But the National Rifle Association (NRA) came forward and said it no longer supports the bill because of amendments requiring training and an age limit, and also limiting the places where guns are allowed.

“Our goal is to make public college and university campuses safer by removing the needless constraints placed upon law-abiding citizens who wish to carry on campus,” Lars Dalseide, a spokesman for the organization, said in an email last week. “Unless House Bill 1249 is amended to reflect a true campus carry bill, one without excessive mandates and needless restrictions, the NRA will not support it.”

Garner said he plans to work with fellow Republican lawmakers Hutchinson and Sen. Linda Collins-Smith to come up with an amendment that the entire Senate will approve. When ask to offer specific details, the South Arkansas senator said he believes they may be able to come up with an “in-between” solution that will resolve the two biggest sticking points, the age limit and hours of training.

“Sen. Smith had ‘no’ training, and I tend to look that way but I think we can reduce it to 8 (hours) and maybe clear up some of the language as well,” he said. “So between all parties, I think we will come up with a good amendment, see if it will pass through the Judiciary committee and when I bring it back to the Senate, I plan on getting it voted on, one way or the other.”

Earlier in the four-hour Senate meeting, Collins-Smith introduced state and national NRA officials that came to Little Rock to watch the chamber proceedings from the gallery. Monday evening, the bill was already on the Senate Judiciary Committee’s calendar to be discussed on Wednesday, March 1.

The House of Representatives also had a busy agenda as lawmakers barely passed a bill that ends employers’ workers’ compensation laws, while rejecting contentious legislation allowing larger grocery store chains to sell an expanded selection of wines.

House Bill 1586 by Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, would limit worker’s compensation benefits in total and permanent disability cases to two-thirds of an employee’s average weekly wage for 450 weeks. It passed 68-19. Because the workers’ compensation law it amended was enacted by a voter-initiated act in 1948, it required a two-thirds majority for passage. The bill failed to reach that two-thirds majority Feb. 22 when the vote was 57-27.

The bill grew out of a law passed in a 2016 special session that closed to new claims the state-operated Workers’ Compensation Commission’s Death and Permanent Total Disability Trust Fund. The fund pays benefits after they have reached a certain point but was facing rising liabilities and potential insolvency. Closing the fund to new claims shifted the responsibility to employers, with the expectation that future legislation would address the issue.

Payton said the bill is important to limit employers’ exposure and prevent the state’s low workers’ compensation rates from rising, which he said is important for economic development. Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, expressed opposition, saying the insurance companies would be telling legislators if the rates were going higher. She said a permanently disabled young person will only be covered for 450 weeks under the bill.

A bill that would allow Wal-Mart and other grocery stores to sell an expanded selection of wines fell two votes short of passing the House, 48-34, with 12 voting present and six not voting. Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, who voted no, served notice that he will move to reconsider the vote.

Senate Bill 284 by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, would allow grocery stores to sell an expanded selection of wines while allowing permitted liquor stores to sell “consumables and edible products that complement alcoholic beverages.” Grocery store chains operating in Arkansas now can only sell Arkansas and other small farm wines that produce less than 250,000 gallons yearly.

Grocery stores would pay between $1,000 and $5,000 for wine permits depending on the size of their permitted space for a fee that would fund the Arkansas Wine Grants Fund. The store could receive no more than 20% of its gross sales from alcoholic beverages. Only stores in wet counties could participate.

Legislators debated how best to allow the liquor industry to participate in a free market environment. Rep. Sarah Capp, R-Ozark, said the bill would allow more individual choice and warned that if legislators do not pass the bill, voters would initiate more liberal alcohol laws as they did with the Medical Marijuana Amendment, and as Oklahoma voters did allowing beer and wine in grocery stores.

“The times are changing, and we have to adapt to the market,” she said. “Any business that assumes that this is going to continue long-term has a flaw in their business plan.”

Other legislators took an opposing view. Della Rosa said liquor stores have been forced to operate their business models in a highly regulated closed market system and would now face the prospect of competing against Wal-Mart, which is already set up for a free market environment.

“They will die not because they’ve chosen a poor business model, not because they’ve refused to compete in a free market, but because we have prohibited them from doing so. We have set them up to fail,” she said.

Rep. Gary Deffenbaugh, R-Van Buren, said small liquor stores would be harmed by the bill young people would be more exposed to wine in larger stores without adequate controls, particularly in stores with self-checkouts.

Altogether, more than 40 bills were approved by the House and Senate today. Following are some of those bills.

• SB136 by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, which is part of a plan introduced by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to overhaul the state’s criminal justice system. The legislation includes increasing funding for specialty courts including drug and veteran’s courts, reforming qualifications to serve on the state’s parole board and allowing police and Arkansas Department of Community Correction officers to conduct warrantless searches on probation and parolees. It was approved by a vote of 27-4 and now goes to the House Judiciary Committee.

• SB278 by Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, which would provide tuition for members of the Arkansas National Guard. He said the strength and personnel of the Arkansas National Guard has been reduced to the point where its readiness to carry out national missions, state emergencies and other assignments have been compromised. Under his legislation, Arkansas National Guard members may attend a state-supported institution of higher education tuition-free if they are an Arkansas resident, completed active duty training and have been accepted to a local college or university as a student in good standing. The bill was approved by vote of 34-0. It now goes to the House Education Committee.

• HB1590 by Rep. DeAnn Vaught, R-Horatio, will exempt certain records of the Arkansas State Police concerning the governor’s mansion and operations from the state Freedom of Information Act. That bill is among a dozen bills House and Senate lawmakers will consider this week that Arkansas Press Association officials said is part of an ongoing effort by the Legislature to weaken the state’s open records acts, which is considered one of the strongest in the nation. Vaught’s bill was approved by 77-7, with another 16 voting present or not participating. The bill now moves to the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.