LITTLE ROCK — The 91st General Assembly will convene at noon Monday for a legislative session expected to include topics such as tax cuts, health care and medical marijuana.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he will ask lawmakers to approve a $50 million income tax cut for low-income Arkansans, to take effect in 2019, and an income tax exemption for military retirement benefits estimated to cost the state $13 million a year.
Some legislators have said they have other ideas for cutting taxes, including Rep, Warwick Sabin, D-Little Rock, who favors creating an earned income tax credit for low-income working families, and Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, who favors cutting income taxes across the board.
“For the people at the top, we continue to do nothing, and I think that’s unfair,” Collins said in December.
In 2015, Hutchinson won Legislative approval of an income tax cut for middle-class Arkansans. He has said he is committed to lowering income taxes for high earners, but only after all other income groups have received tax relief.
House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, said last week that with state revenues below forecast for the fiscal year to date, some lawmakers may prefer not to approve any tax cut during this session.
“I think one of the concepts and ideas that will be talked about will be just taking a deep breath and kind of holding up and maybe not doing anything this time,” Gillam said last week.
Hutchinson said last week he opposes waiting to cut taxes. He said his plan to provide tax relief to all income groups “takes a long-term commitment. If you delay that commitment and say now is not the right time, then it makes it harder down the road.”
The governor also will ask lawmakers to reauthorize and fund the state’s Medicaid expansion program, which provides government-subsidized private health insurance to more than 300,000 Arkansans earning up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
Hutchinson received federal approval last year to make certain changes to the program, now known as Arkansas Works, and has said he expects the state to receive greater flexibility under President-elect Donald Trump.
The program has faced staunch opposition from some Republican legislators in past sessions, but Hutchinson and legislative leaders have said that with Trump taking office this month, they expect the program’s former opponents to take a wait-and-see attitude.
“I think that battle is behind us,” Hutchinson said last week.
Voters in November approved a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana in the state, and several bills concerning implementation and regulation of the state’s medical-marijuana program have been filed in advance of the session.
Hutchinson said last week he believes the focal point of discussions around medical marijuana should be that “this is not recreational use, this is medical marijuana.”
The governor also has said wants lawmakers to make the state’s dual holiday honoring the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert E. Lee a holiday for King only, with Robert E. Lee to be honored with a day of recognition — but not a state holiday — in October.
Attempts during the 2015 session to end the dual holiday failed amid opposition from people and groups who raised concerns about dishonoring Lee. Hutchinson did not make the issue part of his agenda in that session, however.
The governor has said he sees no need for legislation on transgender bathroom access, a topic that North Carolina controversially addressed with a law requiring people to use public bathrooms that match their birth gender. Some legislators have said they would support legislation on the issue.
Bills that have been filed in advance of the session provide a preview of other issues likely to be debated. Among other things, lawmakers have filed measures that would:
• Require voters to show photo identification at the polls.
• Ban the abortion procedure known as dilation and evacuation.
• Bar a community from receiving funds administered by the state if the community adopts a “sanctuary” policy, or a policy of not cooperating with the federal government in enforcing immigration laws.
• Allow the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act of 1983 to be waived if a school district is in academic, fiscal or facilities distress.
• Ban cellphone use by students in public schools.
• Eliminate vaccination exemptions for religious or philosophical beliefs.