Senate adopts National Cancer Center funding for UAMS

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 932 views 

One day after a procedural maneuver stalled a measure on the Senate floor to create new funding for a national cancer research center at UAMS in Little Rock, lawmakers on Tuesday (March 19) corrected the misadventure and will soon send House Bill 1565 to the governor’s desk.

House Bill 1565 by Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, would create a new revenue stream from a mix of several programs that will 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 proposal, Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, jokingly reminded his Senate colleagues that HB 1565 was the same bill that initially had enough votes on the previous day but was blocked from moving out of the chamber due to a “sound the ballot” challenge by Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron. Under that Senate rule, all senators must be seated in the chamber, usually when a tight vote is challenged.

“So, same bill as yesterday, and I think I have gone around and cleared up any concerns that members had in the room. If you are planning to support the bill, I ask you to go ahead and take your seat. Sen. Rice, I actually got a note that you have an urgent constituent need out in the front here,” Dismang said dryly as laughter filled the chamber.

Following Dismang’s brief introduction, Rice rose to speak “on” the measure after joking that he had “hearing problems.” Despite the levity, Rice still noted that while he backed the intent to create an NCI-designated cancer treatment facility in central Arkansas, he did not support a provision in the bill that that would “start step” the legal age for purchasing tobacco and e-cigarette products from 18 to 21.

“Tax me when you need to tax me; put a fee on me when you have to, but when you take my personal right away … that’s my problem (with this bill),” said Rice.

On Monday, the Senate originally approved the measure 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.

Following Rice’s turn at the Senate podium, HB 1565 was approved Tuesday by a vote of 22-10 with three members not voting. Chesterfield, Elliott and Johnson, now seated, all voted for the measure. The bill was sent back to the House Rules Committee where an amendment will be added. It was earlier approved in the House on March 7 by a vote of 67 yeas and 14 nays. Nineteen representatives did not vote or were present.

Now that HB 1565 has cleared its final hurdle, Arkansas is poised 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 measure, according to state Department of Finance and Administration’s calculations, 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.

Earlier on the Senate agenda, the chamber approved Senate Bills 440 and 441 by Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers. Those bills are exact copies of rules that deal with oversight of the state’s fledgling medical marijuana industry adopted by the state Alcoholic Beverage Control Board after the 2017 session on behalf of the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission.

SB 440 would prohibit medical marijuana testing facilities, cultivators and dispensaries from manufacturing or processing cannabis products that are likely to appeal to children, such as marijuana-laced gummy bears, cookies or candy bars. Similarly, SB 441 would apply the same restrictions on medical cannabis promoters and advertisers targeting anyone under 18 years old.

Last week, state MMC officials said that three of the five licensed cultivation facilities in the state are now fully approved to grow or bring in plants. Bledsoe said on the Senate floor that the medical marijuana regulatory board is now squaring up its rules ahead of expectations that cannabis products could be on the shelf in a few weeks.

Several of the 32 dispensaries approved by the MMC to sell cannabis products across the state have announced intentions to have medical marijuana available for purchase by early April. State regulators are looking to finalize draft rules for the transportation of marijuana between cultivation facilities and retail stores across the state in the first week of April.

The Senate also backed SB 550 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, which will transfer oversight of liquid animal waste from the state Department of Environmental Quality to the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission by 2021. Stubblefield turned back criticism that his bill was an attempt to work around ADEQ’s decision last year to shut down hog farm operations in the Buffalo River watershed.

Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, told Stubblefield that Arkansas needs to protect its pristine rivers, streams and water sources through more stringent environmental rules, not weaker ones. “Let’s keep the state the Natural State,” said the Little Rock senator.

Stubblefield’s bill, however, was approved by a vote of 25-5. It now goes to the House Agriculture, Forestry, and Economic Development Committee.