LITTLE ROCK — The House advanced bills Thursday that would give fiscally distressed school districts more time to get their financial houses in order and would create a new state panel to decide the fate of charter schools.
The Senate rejected legislation that would make Arkansas law mirror federal law in penalties regarding lead-based paint.
The House voted 89-1 to pass House Bill 1770 by Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville. The bill would change the maximum amount of time that a school or school district can be in fiscal distress, academic distress or facilities distress from two years to five years.
"It gives them up to five years, and actually puts some language in there that will allow some advisory boards, once progress is being made after two years, where those advisory boards can come on and … help them," Perry said.
A school or district that does not get out of distress within five years would be consolidated, annexed or reconstituted, which is currently the fate of districts that do not get out of distress within two years. The bill is supported by the state Department of Education.
The House voted 87-0 to pass HB 1528 by Rep. Biviano, R-Searcy. The bill would authorize the state education commissioner to appoint five to 11 Education Department employees to a panel that would review and decide on charter school applications and renewals. A decision by the panel could be appealed to the state Board of Education, which now approves or disapproves charter school applications.
The Education Department supports the bill. Education officials opposed an earlier bill that Biviano scrapped that would have created an independent commission to approve and regulate charter schools.
HB 1770 and HB 1528 now go to the Senate.
Other bills passed by the House on Thursday included:
—HB 1702 by Rep. Joanathan Barnett, R-Siloam Springs, which would extend for 10 years a law allowing the state Highway Commission to enter into design-build contracts, in which a contractor is responsible for both designing and constructing a project. The current law expires in July. The bill also would expand the types of project for which design-build contracts can be issued.
The bill passed 66-16 and goes to the Senate.
—HB 2049 by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, D-Warren, which would eliminate the requirement that massage therapy school students be tested for tuberculosis. Wardlaw said the tests are not particularly useful because they are only done once, not annually, and the state no longer has federal dollars to pay for the tests, so the cost has been shifted to the students.
The bill passed 84-3 and goes to the Senate.
—HB 1686 by Rep. Richard Womack, R-Arkadelphia, which would allow criminal background checks and Child Maltreatment Central Registry checks of volunteers at public schools. The bill passed 88-0 and goes to the Senate.
—HB 1282 by Rep. John Edwards, D-Little Rock. Under the bill, if the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department seeks to obtain a private property owner’s land under the right of eminent domain and the property owner files a legal challenge and wins by 10 percent or more, the state must pay the property owner’s legal costs. The bill passed 77-7 and goes to the Senate.
—HB 1354 by Rep. David Branscum, R-Marshall, which would define an "infamous crime" — an offense which would disqualify a person from running for or holding public office — as a misdemeanor theft or property offense; abuse of office; tampering; or a misdemeanor involving deceit, fraud or a false statement. Felonies already prohibit people from running for or holding public office in Arkansas.
The bill passed 93-0 and goes to the Senate.
—Senate Bill 654 by Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, which would end mandatory testing of prison inmates for HIV before their release into society. Presenting the bill in the House, Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, said only three inmates have tested positive for HIV since the the tests became mandatory in 2007 and that the bill would save the state $100,000 a year.
The bill passed 81-0 and goes to the Senate.
The Senate on Thursday rejected HB 1355 by Rep. Butch Wilkins, D-Bono, in a 13-12 vote. A bill needs 18 votes in the 35-member Senate to pass.
The bill would align the state’s penalties related to violations of lead-based paint rules with those required by federal law. The vote occurred after Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, told Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, who presented the bill on the Senate floor, that he believed the legislation would cause costs for house builders and others to rise.
The Senate passed:
— SB 778 by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, which would allow a person to be charged with a Class D felony if he or she is arrested for delivery of a controlled substance and already has four or more prior convictions for delivery of a controlled substance. Currently, the person can only be charged with a Class A misdemeanor.
The bill passed 35-0 and goes to the House.
— SB 781 by Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, which deals with who can inherit property if one spouse murders the other and there is no will. Under the bill, the children of a person convicted of murdering a spouse would be prohibited from inheriting anything from the deceased if they are not blood relatives of the deceased.
The bill passed 35-0 and goes to the House.
— HB 1250 by Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville, 35-0. It would would expand the definition of battery in the second degree to include recklessly causing physical injury to another person while driving while intoxicated. The bill goes to the governor.
Elsewhere Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee gave a "do pass" recommendation to SB 417 by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, which would allow criminal prosecution for anyone who harms an unborn child from conception to birth. The bill goes to the House.