LITTLE ROCK — Consideration of a third ballot proposal, votes on medical-marijuana bills and discussions of the state budget and the Medicaid expansion program are on tap as Arkansas’ legislative session goes into its 11th week.
In each regular legislative session in an odd-numbered year, the Legislature can refer up to three proposed constitutional amendments to the ballot for the next general election.
So far this session, lawmakers have referred two proposals: one to require voters to show photo identification at the polls, and one to limit damages and attorneys’ fees in civil lawsuits and give the Legislature power to repeal, amend and create court rules.
Traditionally, the House and Senate have taken turns filling the third slot, and this year it’s the House’s turn. The House last week approved a resolution authorizing House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, to introduce House Joint Resolution 1003, which would impose tougher requirements for placing a proposed constitutional amendment on the ballot.
Among other things, the proposal would require that a proposed constitutional amendment receive at least 60 percent of the votes cast in an election for approval instead of a simple majority; require at least a two-thirds vote in both chambers for a proposed constitutional amendment to be referred to the ballot, instead of a simple majority; and increase from 15 to 25 the minimum number of counties from which petitions must be submitted for a citizen-initiated constitutional amendment.
The House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to consider HJR 1003 on Monday.
Several bills related to implementing the state’s medical-marijuana program are still working their way through the Legislature, including one that would ban the drug from being manufactured or sold in food or drink.
House Bill 1392 by Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Springdale, cleared the House Rules Committee earlier this month and is expected to receive a vote in the House this week. The bill would allow a patient authorized to use medical marijuana to put the drug in his or her own food, or have it done by an approved caregiver, but dispensaries could not sell the drug in food.
Lundstrum says her bill would reduce the risk of children accidentally consuming the drug.
Opponents say that for some patients, products such as marijuana cookies or brownies are the best way to consume the drug, and that not all of those patients will have the ability to prepare those items or have caregivers to prepare them. They also say children would be no less likely to eat cookies or brownies made at home than purchased from a dispensary.
One of the last things the Legislature does in each session is approve and send to the governor the Revenue Stabilization Act, which sets out the state budget and spending priorities for the next fiscal year. Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, said legislative leaders and the governor’s office are about to buckle down and get to work on that task.
“We’ve had a little impromptu meeting, but we’ve got to get serious this week,” he said.
Teague said there likely will not be major differences from the $5.5 billion budget Gov. Asa Hutchinson has proposed.
“There’ll be a tweak or two here and there, but I wouldn’t expect a lot of change,” he said.
An RSA bill is likely to be in lawmakers’ hands sometime in the last week of this month, according to Teague.
In recent years, one of the biggest fights in each session has been over continuing the state’s Medicaid expansion program, which currently provides government-subsidized private health insurance, mostly funded by the federal government, to more than 300,000 low-income Arkansans.
The program, formerly known as the private option and now called Arkansas Works, has been supported by Democratic legislators since its creation in 2013 as an alternative to the expansion of Medicaid rolls envisioned in the federal Affordable Care Act, but it has divided Republicans. Appropriating state and federal funds for the program requires a three-fourths vote in each chamber every year.
Hutchinson and legislative leaders have said that for once they do not expect a major fight over appropriating funds to the Department of Human Services for the program. The arrival in the White House of a Republican president intent on repealing and replacing the Affordable Care Act and giving more flexibility to the states has changed the landscape, they say.
“There’s not been the level of discussion about the DHS appropriations as there have been in previous sessions,” Gillam said last week.
The House has approved a bill, HB 1465 by Rep. Josh Miller, R-Heber Springs, that would halt enrollment in the program on July 1 if the federal government grants approval. The bill is now in the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
Hutchinson is seeking waivers to allow the state to make changes to the program that he says would reduce costs and control enrollment numbers. He has said he does not favor freezing enrollment.
Gillam said last week that the House’s approval of Miller’s bill, which would continue the program for people already enrolled, suggests the members may not be inclined to eliminate the program entirely by blocking funding for it.
“Based on some of the conversations based around that bill, one could infer that they would be supportive of the appropriation process with DHS — but there’s no guarantee,” he said.