Senate approves $97 million tax cut after two tries, Democrats cast deciding votes

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 977 views 

Two South Arkansas Democratic senators flipped their votes on Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s $97 million tax cut bill on Wednesday, pushing the legislation to the House of Representatives where it is expected to find difficulty toward the same three-fourths votes to be enacted into law.

In the  first real test for Hutchinson’s broad agenda for the 92nd General Assembly, a super-majority of legislators gave the governor a quick 28-5 vote victory on Senate Bill 211 after losing a bruising floor debate a day earlier on retooling the state’s top income bracket.

“I am grateful for all the senators who supported the 5.9 tax cut plan and for the hard work displayed by senate leadership to achieve today’s successful vote,” Hutchinson said after his first major win of the 2019 session. “This commonsense approach to tax policy received more than three-fourths of the vote in the Senate. It has broad, bipartisan support, and that certainly gives it plenty of momentum as it goes to the House for final consideration.”

Under Hutchinson’s abridged 5.9 plan, Arkansas’ top marginal rate would drop to 6.6% in the first year of the biennium and down to the preferred 5.9% in the second year. Last week, Hutchinson unveiled SB 211 as a modified version of the earlier $192 million “2-4-5.9” tax cut package, which was recommended by the bicameral state Tax Reform and Relief Task Force created during the 2017 legislative session to study the state’s cumbersome tax code.

Unlike the vote held the previous day, when two Republican senators failed to get Hutchinson’s bill over the finish line by refusing to vote on the measure, SB 211 won approval with one vote to spare with the help of two Democrats who changed their minds. Sen. Eddie Cheatham, D-Crossett, told reporters after the vote he had a conversation with Senate President Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, who convinced him that voting for the third phase of Hutchinson’s revamp of the Arkansas tax code was the right thing to do.

“The longer we stay here on the floor with (SB 211), it just slows the process down. So, that’s why I decided to go ahead on vote on it and move it down to the House and let them worry about it down there and we will work on transportation,” said Cheatham.

When asked if he was offered anything in exchange for his vote, Cheatham replied adamantly that he had not. “I have never asked for anything since I have been up here,” he said.

Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, also reversed from a “nay” to a “yea.” In the prior floor vote on Tuesday that ended 25 -5 and five senators not voting, Maloch complained that the bill sponsors didn’t have their “ducks” in order after two Republicans, Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, and Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, failed to vote for the governor’s tax plan.

In Wednesday’s floor vote that provoked no debate after Tuesday’s raucous back-and-forth along party lines, the same five Democrats voted against the bill, including Sens. Will Bond, Joyce Elliott and Linda Chesterfield, all Little Rock natives, and Greg Leding of Fayetteville and Keith Ingram of West Memphis.

Sample, who did not vote Tuesday after saying Hutchinson’s tax cut should be tied to a highway bill now estimated at a price tag of more than $450 million, was a no show. Terry also flipped his vote after Hutchinson openly criticized him and Sample for not supporting SB 211. However, his vote was not needed after Hendren whipped the two Democrats to his side.

Immediately after the vote, Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Little Rock, asked Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, who presides over the Senate, for a “clincher” vote on SB211, a procedural act in which a full Senate agrees that the just-adopted bill can’t be reconsidered unless there is a consensus of the majority. SB 211 now goes to the House Revenue and Taxation Committee, which is chaired by Rep. Joe Jett, R-Success, one of the bill’s chief architects.

In other Senate business, there was long floor debate on SB 170 by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs over local property rights and county and regulation of residential building design. Several senators complained that amendments to the bill were left off by Hester that would clarify if the bill would allow the legislation to usurp the rights of local municipalities.

In speaking for his bill, Hester told opponents his legislation would strengthen the rights of local citizens.

“I don’t feel like this is the state forcing our will on the city. I feel like the state is giving the power back to the (people) and what the Constitution says that the power of the individual property owner,” Hester said in response to a query from Sen. Elliott. “So, it’s not pushing the power up, but pushing it down to the individual property owner, which I believe is in the Constitution, and the state of Arkansas has the strongest property rights in the country.”

After several long floor speeches by Senate supporters and opponents of SB 170, the bill was approved by a vote of 23-11. Before the final vote, five senators came to the floor to alert the chamber of possible conflicts due to their ties to the construction and housing industry. Hester’s bill now goes to the House City, County & Local Affairs Committee, where it is expected to be amended.