Thursday, January 24, 2013

89th General Assembly Recap - Week 2

This is likely the last really placid week at the Arkansas General Assembly. They did not meet on Monday in honor of Martin Luther King Day and are not meeting today due to a lack of pressing issues. So they really were in session for about two and a half days this week.

They are approaching 300 bills filed so far, but most are standard appropriation bills that will be considered in context of an overall budget. The only political heat generated this week came from gun-related legislation as the national debate over gun-control spilled into the General Assembly. 

The House State Agencies Committee recommended passage of HR1003, which would encourage preservation of Arkansans' right to bear arms. This is what I call a "soap box" bill since it cannot directly impact policy and is simply an opportunity to publicly take a position on an issue. With one out of every two southerners being a gun owner and more than 127,000 concealed carry permits in Arkansas, being pro-gun is usually safe political ground in this state.

The General Assembly also saw legislation (SB71) filed to allow concealed carry permit holders to take their handguns into churches if that church allows it. While, HB1035 would authorize staff or faculty at higher education institutions to carry a concealed weapon on campus.

The Senate also dipped its toe into the Medicaid expansion debate this week as the Public Health Committee heard testimony from Arkansas Surgeon General Joe Thompson and University of Arkansas Medical System Chancellor Dan Rahn. Both Drs. Thompson and Rahn support expansion of Medicaid to Arkansans earning up to 138% of the federal poverty level. Both were questioned about the possibility of partially expanding the program to Arkansans earning up to 100% of the federal poverty level. The federal government has not indicated a partial expansion is possible at this time. Roby Brock with Talk Business reported on this story, which can be found HERE.
Without some sort of partial expansion solution allowed by the federal government, Medicaid expansion could hinge on developing a plan to fund the future state share that Arkansas must assume beginning in 2017 and what happens if the federal government reduces their current funding commitment. Leadership in the House have stated that once the new Medicaid recepients are added to the system the possibility that the state would throw them off if federal funding is reduced seems very unlikely. So mitigating future budget risks will be an important component of the expansion negotiation.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

89th General Assembly Recap - Week 1

The first week of the General Assembly is in the books and while little actual legislation was discussed a number of interesting bills were filed that could likely figure in debate later in the session. Those bills are listed below and include a number of potential state constitutional amendments, possible spending caps and a bill that would prohibit single-use plastic bags.

The first week saw Governor Beebe offer his final State of the State address to a regular session of the General Assembly. After nearly three decades as either a state legislator, attorney general or governor, Mike Beebe will end his time in state government next year.

The Governor's address outlined his priorities for the 89th General Assembly, which included acceptance of federal funding to expand Medicaid coverage to around 250,000 Arkansans, minimizing cuts to the current Medicaid system by dedicating surplus funds, reducing the sales tax on groceries and funding education programs.

Governor Beebe also hinted at the possibility the state could land a billion dollar superproject in 2013. If it occurs, it would be the largest economic development project, by far, in the state's history. Undoubtedly, to seal the deal for such a major project it would require incentives that will necessitate approval by the legislature. The session could last into early April and the bill filing deadline is early March so surely the project would be announced by then in order for a bill to be filed and considered by the General Assembly.

Also in big news this week, Speaker of the House Davy Carter (R, Cabot) announced committee leadership positions. Two major leadership positions went to Northwest Arkansas Republicans. Speaker Carter appointed Duncan Baird (R, Lowell) to chair the powerful Joint Budget Committee. Representative Baird is a third termer with a background in accounting and banking. The Chamber ran a profile of Representative Baird in 2011, which you can view HERE.

The second key appointment was Fayetteville/Washington County Representative Charlie Collins who will lead the House Revenue and Tax Committee. Representative Collins' campaign focused on tax policy so this appointment fits well with his interests and background. Collins is in his second term and when he is not working as a state legislator he is partners in an executive search firm.

Other Northwest Arkansans appointed to committee leadership positions are Jonathan Barnett (R, Siloam Springs) who will chair Public Transportation again in the 89th General Assembly and Mary Lou Slinkard (R, Gravette) who will chair House Technology.
Overall, Speaker Carter took a bipartisan approach and choose 7 Republicans and 4 Democrats as committee chairs. Eight Democrats were appointed as vice chair along with three Republicans.
Like every legislative session, it is going to be an interesting one so please visit to find information on important issues and stay informed in 2013!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

89th General Assembly & New Advocacy Website

The Arkansas General Assembly convenes for their regular session for the 89th time on Monday, January 14.

With Republicans in the majority in the state House and Senate for the first time since the 1870s it has generated lots of speculation on what changes or types of legislation the new majority will implement now that they have control. With 51 seats in the House (out of 100) and 21 seats in the Senate (out of 35), Republicans will be able to pass all but budget bills without getting any support from Democrats. Budget bills require 3/4th approval so whatever budget is finally approved will be bipartisan.

The General Assembly utilizes a committee structure to review and approve bills for votes on the floor of the House and Senate. So to become law a bill must be approved by a committee first before it can be voted on by the entire House or Senate (with, I think, one rarely used procedural exception). Therefore if Democrats oppose a non-budget related bill they will either need Republican support or they will need to stop it at the committee level.

In the 2011 legislative session the Republicans appeared to be a very organized and mostly unified group on legislative issues. So normally I would find it unlikely that many Republicans would cross over to support Democrats in opposition to their party on major issues. However, the recent race for Speaker of the House highlighted that the Republicans aren't necessarily unified on big issues. The Speaker's race saw a coalition of very conservative Republicans and presumably all the Democrats in the House to elect Davy Carter (R, Cabot) over the presumptive Republican candidate, Terry Rice (R, Waldron). If a coalition that diverse can come together on an issue as important as the election of the Speaker of the House, anything is possible.

The second option for Democrats is to stop bills at the committee level. Republicans control all of the key committees in the Senate. They also control Revenue and Tax, Education and State Agencies in the House. So if it is related to schools, tax cuts, elections or constitutional amendments Republican have a clear path to enact their agenda if they are unified.

Democrats share control of Insurance and Commerce and Public Health committees, which are the two most likely to deal hot button issues like insurance exchanges and healthcare. So any legislation related to these issues will require bipartisan support for it to become law.

You can view a list of House Committee assignments HERE. You can view a list of Senate Committee Assignments HERE.

Like every legislative session, it is going to be an interesting one so please visit to find information on important issues and stay informed in 2013!