The Arkansas General Assembly convened on January 14 and wrapped up their official business on April 23. After more than three months in session The 89th General Assembly filed nearly 2,500 bills and passed 61%, which is a pretty efficient conversion of bills to laws. Especially when you compare the state legislature with the United States Congress, which rarely passes more than five percent of the bills introduced. Over the past 25 years the state legislature have averaged passage of 65% of introduced bills (see below).
The Chamber began the session with a modest legislative agenda that focused on its traditional issues of economic development, higher education and transportation. Below is a recap of how issues included on our agenda fared.
Economic Development Issues:
- Support Quick Action Closing Fund - $50 million included in final budget. These funds are used to pay for economic development incentives and are very effective in recruiting and retaining jobs in NW Arkansas.
- Support Regional Economic Development Partnership - led an effort to broaden the reach of regional economic development partnerships, which is a state program that encourages regions to work together to proactively recruit new business and industry.
- Promote Legislation that Supports Entrepreneurs - worked with Accelerate Arkansas to advocate for funding of programs that support high-tech, knowledge based start ups. Nearly $20 million dedicated to related programs intended to promote these "new economy" companies.
- Tax Cuts for Manufacturers - advocated for tax reductions in utilities and repair/replacement parts for manufacturers. The General Assembly approved reduction of both taxes, which will save Arkansas manufacturers nearly $25 million per year thus making them more competitive in an increasingly global marketplace.
- Technical Corrections to Regional Mobility Authority - led effort to modify regional mobility authority legislation to clarify issues related to issuance of bonds.
- Increase Flexibility for County/City Turnback - cities and counties receive 15% each from the recently enacted 0.5% temporary highway sales tax. The General Assembly authorized cities and counties to bond these turnback funds if approved by voters.
- Incentives to Attract Low Cost Air Carrier to XNA - a signficiant cost for business in NW Arkansas is continued high cost of airfare. The region sought assistance from the state to develop incentives to recruit a low-cost carrier like Frontier Airlines to XNA. State legislators in the region designated funding to attract a low-cost carrier in an effort to reduce airfares for all NW Arkansas residents.
- FOIA Exemption for Water Systems - supported efforts by water systems to permanently exempt security-related documents from Freedom Of Information Act requirements. Legislation passed by General Assembly.
- Increased Funding for Higher Education - NWACC increased their general revenue funding by more than $500,000 and received $4.7 million in general improvement funding to pay for needed facility and program improvements.
- Big River Steel - A new steel mill in Osceola will be the state's first opportunity to land a super-project. BRS creates more than 500 jobs and brings more than $1 billion in investment to the state. The project found support from legislators around the state for this Northeast Arkansas project. The Chamber supported the project and the state's investment of $125 million in incentives. The Chamber thanks all those legislators that supported the Big River Steel project.
- Private Option Healthcare - the major issue heading into the 89th General Assembly was how to deal with possible expansion of Medicaid coverage to 250,000 low-income Arkansans. The likelihood of expanding Medicaid never found much support within the Republican majority of the House or Senate. However, leadership in both parties negotiated an innovative compromise that uses federal Medicaid dollars to pay private insurance premiums for low-income Arkansans. This plan is projected to save Arkansas millions in Medicaid matching funds while reducing uncompensated care losses at Arkansas hospitals and providing insurance coverage to many of the neediest Arkansans. The Private Option plan originally conceived by Republicans John Burris, David Sanders and Jonathan Dismang truly proved to be the best solution to a difficult, complex issue. The Chamber thanks all those legislators that supported this compromise legislation.
Referred Constitutional Amendments:
The General Assembly has the authority to refer up to three Constitutional amendments that will be placed before voters on the 2014 General Election ballot. The year, the legislature picked these three out of a possible 38.
- Issue 1 - Seeks voter approval to authorize the General Assembly to oversee state agency rulemaking. This empowers the legislature at the expense of the executive branch.
- Issue 2 - Seeks voter approval of an ethics, term limit, legislative pay and campaign finance laws. This bill contains a little bit of everything. It would allow state legislators to serve for up to sixteen years in any combination of terms in the House and Senate; eliminates most gifts and free meals for state legislators with a few exceptions; establishes an independent commission to set salaries for elected state officials and legislators; and eliminates corporate contributions to elected officials.
- Issue 3 - Requires citizen petition drives seeking to place questions on statewide ballots have at least 75% valid signatures when they are submitted for the first time. In 2012, many proposed citizen initiatives had 60% or more of their signatures thrown out because they were not from registered voters or in at least one instance were fraudulent. Despite this, these petition efforts still received 30 additional days to collect signatures simply because they turned in petitions. If the proposed amendment is approved by voters any rejection of more than 25% of signatures would immediately eliminate the ballot question from consideration. This would make it more difficult for citizen petition drives to receive enough signatures to be placed on the ballot. A lawsuit has been filed to stop consideration of this issue.
Other Issues Approved by General Assembly:
- Tax Cuts - in addition to the two manufacturing tax cuts, the legislature approved 1) a reduction in the capital gains tax on Arkansas investments and property, 2) a sales tax reduction on utilities for grain dryers and poultry houses, 3) a 0.1% income tax reduction, 4) future reduction in the sales tax on groceries, 5) income tax exemption for active duty military personnel and 6) sales tax reduction on sale of dental appliances and timber harvesting equipment.
- Lottery Scholarships - early in the session, the General Assembly modified the state's lottery scholarship awards so that no matter the institution, qualifying students will receive $2,000 for their freshman year, $3,000 for their sophomore year, $4,000 for their junior year and $5,000 for their senior year. This change places two-year and four-year institutions on the same level and rewards students who complete their degree.
While these are just a handful of the 1,500 bills approved by the General Assembly, they are the ones that the Chamber focused on during the session. Thank you for subscribing to this email. Your engagement in the political process is very important factor in ensuring the business community has a voice in determining bills approved by the General Assembly.
Please continue to check-in with our Chamber's advocacy website: www.rogerslowellvotes.com to stay up to date on federal issues and join with other Chamber members to participate in important advocacy efforts.