Highway ballot issue passed by Senate, headed to governor’s desk; DeCample tribute approved

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 677 views 

The Arkansas Senate on Thursday (March 7) approved the final piece of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s $300 million highway funding package, albeit with a procedural twist that left some lawmakers shaking their heads during the chamber’s two-and-half hour session. Senators also passed a resolution in honor of the late Matt DeCample, a former spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe.

After a failed attempt to keep House Joint Resolution 1018 on the shelf for at least another week, Hutchinson praised House and Senate members for approving the proposed constitutional amendment to allow Arkansas voters to permanently extend a half-cent sales tax that would raise about $205 million annually for state highway maintenance.

Once it is put before Arkansas voters, HJR 1018 by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, would ask taxpayers to pass a ballot issue in 2020 permanently extending the 10-year half-cent sales tax voters passed in 2012. That tax is set to expire in 2023.

“With the Senate’s passage of HJR 1018 this afternoon and the legislature’s passage of the $95 million highway-funding bill earlier this week, the 92nd General Assembly has approved the largest and most comprehensive long-term highway funding plan in state history,” Hutchinson said in a statement. “Because of the passage of HJR1018, Arkansas voters will have the final word on funding for the construction and repair of the roads they drive each and every day.”

On Monday, the House put the final stamp on Senate Bill 336 by Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron by a vote of 70-25. That bill will raise another $58 million per year by enacting a wholesale gas tax that would be the equivalent of 3 cents per gallon, and it would do the same on diesel fuel that would be the equivalent of 6 cents per gallon. That tax could increase by a maximum of one-tenth of one cent per year.

SB 336 would also raise a minimum of $35 million from new casino tax revenues, restricted reserve funds and other general revenue sources. Voters passed a constitutional amendment in November allowing four casinos to operate in Arkansas. Lastly, it would also raise another $2 million by imposing additional fees on users of hybrid and electric vehicles, altogether putting nearly $95 million in the state’s treasury to pay for highways.

“I look forward to continuing to make history alongside these members as I sign this highway-funding package next week,” said Hutchinson, specifically thanking President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and sponsors of the respective bills.

But Hutchinson’s signing ceremony next week for the $300 million highway funding package was nearly postponed. Immediately after the vote on HJR 1018 at Thursday’s hearing, Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Little Rock, motioned on the Senate floor a “notice to reconsider,” effectively putting the resolution on hold for three business days. Under legislative rules, a House or Senate member on the prevailing side must serve a notice to reconsider immediately following a vote, as did Johnson. Because the Central Arkansas lawmaker’s floor motion could not be challenged, the unexpected procedural action left several senators questioning each other about what had just happened.

Amid the confusion, Hendren gestured to Johnson to exit the Senate floor as Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin attempted to explain to the chamber’s members what had happened as they began to pepper him with procedural questions.

“This keeps the (resolution) in the Senate. I obviously knew that was coming and had a long discussion with (Senate Parliamentarian and Chief Counsel Steve) Mr. Cook about this and we walked through all those different contingencies,” said Griffin, the presiding officer of the Senate. “If there is something else people want to pursue, I am happy to research it.”

After several minutes of back-and-forth, Griffin explained to several upset senators that Johnson’s motion would essentially put HJR 1018 “on freeze” until late next week.

“The notice to reconsider is not debatable and is not subject to a vote,” said Griffin. “It’s basically this Senate body’s version of a hold.”

Moments after Griffin’s explanation, Johnson and a perturbed Hendren re-entered the chamber where the Little Rock legislator came to the podium to explain his floor motion that would have postponed the governor’s bill signing ceremony for several days.

“I believe I owe my colleagues an explanation for my actions, and in all fairness it is because some of you didn’t know the (notice of reconsideration) rule,” said Johnson, who served in the cabinet of former Gov. Frank White. “I frankly know the rule because I watched it being done for years and years and it’s much as our presiding officer said, ‘it is a de facto hold’ to take a look at something.”

Johnson said he told Gov. Hutchinson he would back HJR 1018, but wanted to put the resolution on hold to see if the Senate could find another way to pay for highway funding without raising taxes. Johnson then introduced his own alternative plan, Senate Bill 498, to allow the legislature to amend or repeal the constitutional amendment approved by voters in November 2018 to bring casino gambling to Arkansas. That ballot issue, now Amendment 100, opened the door for Arkansas to expand casino operations in Garland, Crittenden, Pope and Jefferson counties, with two of the casino licenses being granted to Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs and Southland Gaming in West Memphis.

Under Johnson’s 12-page proposal, the legislature will shift a larger share of gaming receipts from casino operations to the state’s general revenue fund to pay for state highway maintenance instead of referring the issue to Arkansas voters. But after introducing his plan, Johnson rescinded his earlier motion and moved back to his Senate seat. The final vote on the resolution was 25-7, with three members not voting. HJR 1018 now goes to the House to be enrolled with a concurring amendment, and then to Hutchinson’s desk for the expected signing ceremony next week.

Earlier in the Senate hearing, the chamber was more solemn when Sens. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, and Will Bond, D-Little Rock, introduced former Arkansas Sen. Morril Harriman and the family of Matt DeCample, the former KATV reporter and longtime spokesman for former Gov. Mike Beebe who passed away Sunday.

Harriman, former chief of staff for Beebe who also served in the Senate for 16 years, had a hard time keeping his composure as he read the resolution.

“I wish he was here today because we lost a really, really good man,” Harriman said as he choked back tears.

A memorial for DeCample will be held at 2 p.m., Sunday, at the Clinton Presidential Center in Little Rock.