A measure to create new funding for a national cancer research center in Little Rock failed after a “sound the ballot” challenge in a marathon session Monday (March 18) on the State Senate floor. Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, told reporters after the four-hour Senate agenda he plans to bring the bill back up on the floor tomorrow.
House Bill 1565 by Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, would allow funds created by the bill to be dedicated to a University at Arkansas for Medical Sciences (UAMS) National Cancer Institute (NCI) Research Center Designation Trust Fund, enabling the medical school’s Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute to become an NCI research center.
In introducing the bill, Dismang said the proposal would allow Arkansas to become one of 70 NCI-designated centers in 36 states. Having one in Arkansas would allow cancer patients to receive drugs and participate in clinical trials that are not available in the state, he said, bringing new jobs and extra economic activity to the state.
“The goal here is to make sure people can be treated here in Arkansas,” said Dismang. “In addition to the health benefits that would be brought from the designation, there would also be an economic impact of $70 million to the Arkansas economy and it would also create 1,585 jobs over the next five years. That’s the good news about the NCI designation.”
In the vote on the Senate floor, Dismang initially had enough votes for approval in a tight count of 20 yeas, 12 nays and three senators not participating. However, the votes of Democratic Sens. Joyce Elliott and Linda Chesterfield and Republican Sen. Mark Johnson, all of Little Rock, were not counted because of a procedural rule pushing the vote total below a simple majority.
Under Senate rules, if at least five senators raise their hands for a “sound the ballot” challenge, then all the “yes” votes must be counted again when the roll is called by Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, who presides over the Senate. Because the three Little Rock senators had left the chamber and were not seated during the roll call, their votes were “struck” from the total, leaving Dismang’s bill with only 17 votes.
Immediately afterward, DIsmang called for the vote on HB 1565 to be expunged, which was easily approved. Dismang testified earlier that the measure would raise $10.5 million a year with $5.4 million targeted for NCI funding and $4.6 million going back to general revenues. The bill would fund the NCI designation with revenues from medical marijuana sales taxes and a 4% excise tax. Medical marijuana has not yet been sold in Arkansas after voters legalized it in 2016.
The bill also would increase the state minimum cigarette price from 7.5% to 9.5% of the basic cost to the retailer, and it would remove an exemption that sets tobacco taxes in border cities at the same rates as those in the neighboring states. It also would impose a tax of 50 cents per package of 32 sheets of paper used for hand-rolling cigarettes. The bill also would raise the legal age for purchasing tobacco and e-cigarette products to 21, though it would exempt members of the military and individuals who reach age 19 by Dec. 31, 2019.
In committee, the HB 1565 sponsors removed one of its more controversial provisions, which automatically would have reduced taxes by 50% and 25% for so-called “modified risk products” deemed less dangerous by the Food and Drug Administration. None of those products exist.