LITTLE ROCK — As Arkansas’ legislative session enters its 10th week, lawmakers are debating bills that would place a proposed tax hike for highways on the ballot and expand the places where concealed handguns can be carried.
Also, a bill to expand wine sales in grocery stores is awaiting the governor’s signature or veto.
Money for highways
Two companion bills aimed at raising more than $200 million annually for highway maintenance could receive votes in the House this week.
House Bill 1726 by Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, would ask voters in November 2018 to allow the state Highway Commission to issue bonds for 20 years.
HB 1727, also by Douglas, would ask voters, either in November 2018 or in a special election called by the governor, to approve a 6.5 percent state sales tax on the wholesale price — excluding state and federal excise taxes — of gasoline and diesel.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson supports the bills.
“I can’t imagine why you’d want to deny the people the right to vote on a highway plan for our future,” he said Friday. “And so that’s what Representative Douglas’ bill does. It makes sense to me. It gives the people the right to vote on it, and I support that.”
Last year, Hutchinson unveiled a plan he said would generate $750 million for highway projects over the next 10 years, allowing the state to provide matching funds for about $2 billion federal highway money over that period. The plan requires no increases in taxes or fees, instead relying on a combination of expected budget surpluses and diversion of revenue from existing sales and fuel taxes.
Hutchinson said Friday that legislators later told him, “Your highway plan is not strong enough.”
“They wanted more. So this is their chance to make the case that the voters ought to have a longer-term highway funding plan, and so I’m saying, have at it, and it makes sense,” he said.
But the governor acknowledged that in the current climate, getting the bills through the Legislature will be “an uphill battle.”
Expanding gun rights
A gun bill that has been the most contentious bill of the session has cleared the House and Senate but still needs House concurrence in a Senate amendment before it can go to the governor’s desk.
HB 1249 by Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, started out as a bill to require state colleges and universities to allow faculty and staff, but not students, to carry concealed handguns on campus if they have concealed-carry permits, but it has been rewritten by the Senate.
In its current form, which Hutchinson and the National Rifle Association support, the measure would allow anyone age 21 or older who has a concealed-carry permit to complete eight hours of additional training and become authorized to carry a gun at colleges, bars, airports, polling places, athletic events, most state offices and the state Capitol.
Supporters say the bill is better because it now includes a requirement for more training than most holders of concealed-carry permits receive. Some say it goes too far in expanding gun rights, while others say the training requirements are too restrictive.
Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, complained on the Senate floor Thursday, “This bill … has been prostituted. It is nothing like it started. It has been flipped upside-down.”
A bill to allow grocery stores to sell wine from any winery received final legislative approval Wednesday, but Gov. Asa Hutchinson has not yet said whether he will sign it into law.
Senate Bill 284 by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, would end a restriction in current law that lets grocery stores in wet counties sell only wines from “small-farm wineries,” defined as wineries that produce no more than 250,000 gallons of wine per year.
Fees paid by grocery stores for wine permits would go into a fund that would provide grants to help support Arkansas’ wine industry.
Wal-Mart Stores and Kroger are among the businesses supporting the bill. Many liquor store owners oppose the measure, saying they could not compete with large chains under the restrictions currently imposed on them, including one that limits a liquor store owner to holding no more than one liquor store permit.
In efforts to win support from liquor store owners, the bill was amended in the House to allow liquor stores to sell food products that complement alcoholic beverages. The large grocery chains have won over the owners of some liquor stores adjacent to dry counties by pledging not to push for elections to turn dry counties wet for the next eight years.
Asked Friday whether he will sign the bill, Hutchinson said, “I’ve got some more meetings on that, so we’ll wait and see.”
If Hutchinson does not sign or veto the bill within five days of receiving it, not counting Sunday, it will become law without his signature.