Governor touts session; predicts special one

by Steve Brawner (BRAWNERSTEVE@MAC.COM) 472 views 

On the same day the Arkansas Legislature recessed until May 1, Gov. Asa Hutchinson Monday reviewed the session’s accomplishments and said a May special session will focus on aligning state law with waivers expected from the Trump administration for the Arkansas Works health care program.

“This session of the Legislature has been a good example of where the Legislature came to do business, did their business and went back to business,” he said. “It was a relatively short session. They got their work done. In my judgment, this is one of the most pro-growth, pro-jobs General Assemblies that (has) met in recent memory.”

Hutchinson said there was “no prolonged controversy over health care” as has occurred in recent sessions.

The House and Senate Monday went into recess until May 1 after each passed the opposite chamber’s budget bills, which were identical to their own bills passed Friday. Legislators will return that day to complete any unfinished work and adjourn sine die, or indefinitely.

Hutchinson said that, three days later, legislators could be called into special session to pass legislation needed to align state law with waivers expected to be granted by the Trump administration for Arkansas Works, the state program that uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance. Hutchinson is seeking to limit benefits to adults with incomes at no more than 100% of the federal poverty line – it’s currently 138% – and to include a work requirement.

Earlier in the day, Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said legislators in the special session also may rearrange the changes to the state’s medical marijuana amendment that were passed during this year’s session. The bills that were passed are now law, but Dismang said only the Legislature has the ability to change the state Constitution by editing the order of the changes.

No bill was passed to address the state’s highway needs this session. An effort by Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, to refer a bond issue funded by a 6.5-cent wholesale tax on fuel never made it out of the House, which Hutchinson said emphasizes the difficulty of referring such a matter to the voters.

“I hope that the leadership of our state and the business community and others will look at an initiated act that might go on the ballot for a highway program,” he said. “Otherwise, we will continue to debate the long-term solution in future sessions.”

On Monday, the House said no to Senate Bill 140 by Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, which would have required some out-of-state companies to collect currently uncollected online sales taxes. The bill would have applied to companies with annual sales of more than $100,000 or at least 200 Arkansas transactions. Hutchinson said the tax bill was an issue of fairness to brick-and-mortar retailers rather than an effort to collect more revenue.

“I supported it for that reason,” he said. “This will be resolved in the future. It’s just a matter of time, and I had a number of legislators that came up to me and said that they want to continue to work on that.”

Hutchinson praised the Legislature for avoiding a transgender bathroom bill like the one passed by North Carolina that resulted in economic boycotts and was recently repealed.

“As you know, I said from the very beginning very clearly and without any hesitation that this is not a problem in Arkansas,” he said. “It does not cry out for a solution. It could be harmful for this state, and I’m delighted that the General Assembly did not pass any legislation in that regard.”

Hutchinson touted the passage of a $50 million tax cut for lower-income Arkansans; an exemption for military retiree income; a reduction in the sales tax on replacement parts for manufacturing; a reduction in the state’s soft drink tax; and a change to the state’s higher education funding formula so that it emphasizes academic progress rather than numerical student enrollment.

He displayed a stack of bills that still need to be reviewed for his signature, though a gubernatorial veto in Arkansas can be overridden with a simple majority vote.

He said he would sign Senate Bill 724, the bill banning concealed handguns from college sporting events, this afternoon.