LITTLE ROCK — With Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s low-income tax cut signed into law and his veterans tax break on his desk, lawmakers can focus in the session’s fifth week on topics such as guns on college campuses, sales taxes on Internet purchases and voter identification.
Hutchinson last week signed his key agenda item for the session, a $50 million income tax cut for for Arkansans earning less than $21,000 a year, set to take effect Jan. 1, 2019. This week, he is expected to sign the second part of his tax package, an income tax exemption for military retirement and survivor benefits, with certain existing tax breaks eliminated to offset the cost.
With those issues decided, “I think you’re seeing some issues that probably haven’t had as much debate get a lot more discussion on the floor,” Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said last week.
Guns on campus
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected this week to take up House Bill 1249 by Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, which would allow faculty and staff of public colleges and universities to carry concealed handguns on campus if they have concealed-carry permits, with no option for the schools to say no.
Under a 2013 law also sponsored by Collins, college faculty and staff who have concealed-carry permits can carry guns unless a school opts out — which every school has done since the law took effect. HB 1249 would end the ability of the schools to opt out.
Collins says the bill would help campuses deal with mass shootings and deter some shootings from happening. Opponents, including the presidents of the University of Arkansas and Arkansas State University systems, say the bill could make dangerous situations worse.
The bill passed 71-22 in the House last week, with the yes votes cast mostly by Republicans and the no votes cast mostly by Democrats.
Collins noted in an interview that seven of the eight members of the Senate Judiciary Committee are Republicans.
“With those numbers, we should be in a good position, but I’m not going to count my chickens before they’re hatched,” he said.
Internet sales taxes
Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, said last week he will seek a Senate vote Monday on Senate Bill 140, which would require Amazon to begin collecting sales taxes in Arkansas. The bill cleared the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee last week.
The bill would require an out-of-state seller that sells more than $100,000 worth of products or makes at least 200 transactions in Arkansas in a calendar year to begin collecting sales taxes. It also would allow the state to take a seller to court to recover sales tax revenue.
Arkansas is one of 11 states where Amazon does not collect sales taxes.
Files said in an interview that although some call the bill a tax increase, he does not consider it one because Arkansas law already requires sales taxes to be collected on Internet transactions, although not at the point of sale.
Under current law, Arkansans are supposed to fill out a form reporting their Internet purchases and send a check to the state, but the system is cumbersome and doesn’t work, Files said.
The state Department of Finance and Administration has said it cannot estimate how much revenue the bill would generate. Files said his research suggests annual revenues could be between $32 million and $100 million.
“There has been talk of doing another bill that specifies that (the revenue) goes to future sales or income tax relief,” Files said.
Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, said last week he expects the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee to consider HB 1047 this week. The bill would require voters to show photo identification at the polls and would require the Arkansas Secretary of State’s Office to provide county clerks with the equipment to make photo ID cards that could be issued free to voters who request them.
A person who does not show photo ID would be allowed to cast a provisional ballot. The provisional 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 measure effectively would reinstate a voter ID law that the Republican-controlled Legislature approved in 2013, overriding a veto by then Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat. The Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the law in 2014, saying it violated the Arkansas Constitution by adding qualifications for voting that went beyond those established in the constitution.
Lowery’s bill requires a two-thirds vote in each chamber because it would amend the state constitution’s Amendment 51, which concerns voter registration. He says his bill would survive a legal challenge because of the way it is worded and because the makeup of the Supreme Court has changed.
Opponents say the bill has the same constitutional problems as the 2013 law, would disenfranchise some eligible voters and targets a non-existent problem, voter impersonation at the polls.
The bill passed 74-21 in the House last week, with nearly all the yes votes cast by Republicans and nearly all the no votes by Democrats. The Senate state agencies panel has no Democratic members.
Rep. Brandt Smith, R-Jonesboro, said last week he plans to seek a House vote this week on HB 1041, which would prohibit the application of foreign laws in an Arkansas court when the application of a foreign law would result in the violation of a fundamental right guaranteed by the Arkansas or U.S. Constitution.
The bill cleared the House Judiciary Committee last week.
Smith says the bill is needed as a precaution against the possible of encroachment of foreign laws into the justice system in Arkansas. The bill does not mention sharia law, or Islamic religious law, but opponents say it is will be seen by the public as anti-Muslim legislation.