LITTLE ROCK — Taxes, guns on college campuses and voter identification are among the topics expected to see debate in the fourth week of Arkansas’ legislative session.
Matching House and Senate bills containing Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s proposed $50 million income-tax cut for Arkansans earning less than $21,000 a year passed by overwhelming margins in those chambers last week. Each chamber is expected to give final approval to the other’s bill and send the legislation to the governor’s desk this week.
The tax cut would take effect Jan. 1, 2019. The proposal also includes a provision to create a legislative task force that would recommend future tax reforms.
Rep. Mathew Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, and Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, the majority leaders of the House and Senate, respectively, are the lead sponsors of the legislation.
Another part of the governor’s tax agenda, a proposal to exempt military retirement and survivor benefits from the state income tax, is expected to be considered on the House floor this week after clearing a House committee last week. A matching Senate bill has not yet been heard in committee.
The legislation also includes a provision that would reduce the state’s special excise tax on soft-drink syrup, a tax that generates revenue for the state Medicaid program and that Hutchinson has said was intended originally to be temporary. The measure would transfer $5.9 million a year from general revenue to the Medicaid program to offset the tax reduction.
The measure also includes provisions to offset the estimated $13.4 million annual cost of the veterans tax break and the transfers to Medicaid. Those provisions would repeal a state income tax exemption on unemployment compensation; end the classification of candy and soft drinks as groceries so the state sales tax on them would increase from 1.5 percent to 6.5 percent; and levy a sales tax on digital downloads of products like movies, music and books.
Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, and Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, are the lead sponsors of the legislation, which would take effect Jan. 1, 2018.
House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, said Thursday when asked about the bill’s chances, “I have not heard a lot of people just saying that they were outright against it.”
Guns on campus
The House Judiciary Committee this week is expected to consider House Bill 1249 by Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, which would allow faculty and staff of public colleges and universities to carry handguns on campus if they have concealed-carry permits.
A 2013 law sponsored by Collins allowed college personnel to carry guns on campus, with a provision allowing schools to opt out of the law if their governing bodies choose to. Every institution covered by the law has opted out, so in response Collins is proposing to eliminate the opt-out provision.
Arkansas State University System President Chuck Welch said in a statement Friday the system opposes the bill and favors allowing such decisions to be “made at the local level.”
Collins said Saturday the bill would protect against mass shootings. He said he favors allowing the decision to be made “at an even more local level, the individual level.”
House Bill 1047 by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, which would require voters to show photo identification at the polls, is expected be considered in the House this week.
The measure would allow a person who does not show photo ID at a polling place to cast a provisional ballot. The ballot would be counted if by noon on the following Monday the person shows to the county election board or county clerk a photo ID or an affidavit stating that the person is indigent or has a religious objection to being photographed.
The bill also would require the Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office to provide for the issuance of free voter identification cards to registered voters who request them from their county clerk.
The bill effectively would reinstate a photo ID law that the Legislature enacted in 2013, overriding a veto by then-Gov. Mike Beebe. The Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the law in 2014, finding that it violated the Arkansas Constitution by creating qualifications for voting that went beyond those set in the constitution.
Lowery’s measure would amend a section of the state constitution dealing with voter registration. He has said he believes his bill would survive a court challenge, in part because of its wording and in part because the makeup of the state Supreme Court has changed.
The American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas has said the bill has the same constitutional problems as the 2013 law.
Because it seeks to amend a voter-approved constitutional amendment, the bill requires a two-thirds majority vote in each chamber.
This week the House is expected to consider HB 1209 by Lowery, which would direct the state Higher Education Coordinating Board to adopt a funding model for colleges and universities that would distribute money based on outcomes rather than enrollment.
The measure, part of the governor’s policy agenda, does not provide the details of the proposed formula but does set out the goals for which schools would be financially rewarded, such as improving degree completion, serving under-represented students and improving affordability.
If the bill becomes law, the state Department of Education will develop the funding model and submit it to the Higher Education Coordinating Board for approval. The Legislative Council would have to sign off on the model before it could be implemented.
Hutchinson has said that if the Legislature approves the change, he will seek a $10 million funding increase for higher education for fiscal 2019.
The Senate on Thursday narrowly rejected a proposal by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, to keep Arkansas’ primary in March, but Stubblefield has said he plans to seek a second vote on the bill this week.
The Legislature voted in 2015 to move the primary from May to the first Tuesday in March for the 2016 election cycle only. Senate Bill 122 would make the change permanent.
Stubblefield has said the change made Arkansas relevant in the 2016 presidential race and that making it permanent would allow the state to continue to be relevant in future presidential races.
Some senators have raised concerns about having to campaign in winter weather and having to file as candidates in November of the year prior to an election year, effectively creating yearlong campaigns.
SB 122 received 17 votes in favor and 13 votes against on Thursday, falling just short of the 18 votes the bill needed for passage in the 35-member Senate. Stubblefield successfully moved to expunge the vote, clearing the way from him to bring it back.
“I think I have the votes this time,” he said in an interview late last week.