LITTLE ROCK — State agency budget bills will begin flowing through the Legislature this week, a sign that the 89th General Assembly may be hitting its stride a month into the 2013 session.
"We’re going to start running more general revenue bills, so we’ll be getting into the meat of the subject, so to speak," said Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee.
Up until now, much of the attention on the session has been on issues such as abortion restrictions and gun rights. Considering budget bills is sign that the Legislature is beginning to reach high gear, Teague said.
"It’s when people start dialing in and paying a lot more attention," he said, adding that House and Senate leaders continue to work on a plan to address a $61 million shortfall in Medicaid and whether the state can afford to expand Medicaid.
"There are a lot of things still undecided," Teague said, adding that after the Medicaid questions are resolved lawmakers will tackle the budgets of the "big six" state agency budgets — Department of Education Public School Fund, Department of Health, Department of Human Services, Department of Correction and Community Correction, and higher education institutions.
Meanwhile, while the budget committee starts reviewing agency budgets for next fiscal year, lawmakers are expected to debate bills that would limit abortions, require voter identification and strengthen state laws regarding human trafficking.
A number of bills on controversial issues remain on committee, House and Senate calendars, including the so-called human heartbeat bill, an amended version of which could be considered on the House floor as early as Tuesday.
As originally written, Rapert’s SB 134 would have required any woman seeking an abortion in Arkansas to undergo a test for a fetal heartbeat and would have prohibited the abortion if a heartbeat is detected, unless the woman’s life is in danger or the pregnancy is the result of rape or incest. A heartbeat usually can be detected six weeks into pregnancy.
An amended version received a "do pass" recommendation from the House Public Health and Welfare Committee last week. It would not ban abortions before 12 weeks and would require that the heartbeat test be performed via external abdominal ultrasound.
If the amended bill is approved in the House it would have to go back to the Senate for a final vote. Gov. Mike Beebe has said the bill appears to be unconstitutional but has not said whether he would veto it.
Also Tuesday, the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee is expected to consider Senate Bill 2 by Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, which would require registered voters to show a photo ID at the polls.
Under the bill, all the equipment needed to make the photo IDs would have to be provided by the Arkansas Secretary of State.
Also this week, identical bills that would strengthen the state’s human trafficking law are to be considered in both the House and Senate public health committees.
The Senate last Thursday approved SB 242 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, and the House on Friday approved HB1203 by Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway. Both measures would expand the definition of human trafficking and make it a Class Y felony, punishable by 10 to 40 years or life in prison. Human trafficking is currently a Class A felony, punishable by six to 30 years in prison and up to a $15,000 fine.
They also would allow victims to collect restitutio
n; make it a felony for a person to knowingly patronize a prostitute who is a human trafficking victim; allow a person accused of prostitution to claim as a defense that the prostitution was the result of being a victim of human trafficking; and allow the attorney general to create a task force on human trafficking.
Meeks’ bill is expected to be considered in the Senate Public Health Committee and Irvin’s bill in the House Public Health Committee.
The Senate Public Health Committee also could consider this Wednesday HB 1037 by Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, which would ban an abortion after 20 weeks — the point at which the bill claims a fetus is able to feel pain — except to save the life of the mother or save her from irreversible physical impairment.
The bill passed the House but is stuck in the Senate committee, where some members have said they cannot support it without an exception for pregnancies caused by rape or incest.
Mayberry said each of the four Republicans on the panel have said they would vote for the measure, and that he just needs to get support from one of the four Democrats.
Also, Wednesday is the deadline for lawmakers to file proposed constitutional amendments for possible referral to the November 2014 general election ballot.
The Legislature can refer up to three constitutional amendments to voters, or four if one concerns legislative salaries. As of late Friday afternoon, six had been filed in the Senate and one in the House.