Legislative leaders hope by week’s end to clear the first half of the governor’s highway plan and pare the list of proposed constitutional amendments to refer to the 2020 general election ballot.
The state Senate approved the first part of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s highway funding plan last week, and the House will begin considering it this week.
Both chambers of the 92nd General Assembly also expect to begin picking which three constitutional amendments to offer to voters in 2020, which will be the same year as the next presidential election. One of the proposals is the other part of Hutchinson’s highway funding plan, a permanent extension of the state’s half-percent sales tax for highway upkeep and construction.
Rep. Mike Holcomb, R-Pine Bluff, the House sponsor of Senate Bill 336 by Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, said he will present the legislation, which would raise $95 million a year for the Arkansas Department of Transportation, in the House Revenue and Tax Committee on Tuesday.
The bill proposes raising the money by levying a new wholesale motor-fuel sales tax, adding new registration fees on electric and hybrid vehicles and transferring at least $35 million a year in casino-tax receipts or other state funds to the Transportation Department.
“I think everyone is ready [for a highway plan],” Holcomb said. “It’s not everything we wanted; it’s not a perfect bill. But it’s a giant step toward what we want to do.”
Rep. Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro, also expects the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, which he chairs, to begin deliberating House Joint Resolution 1018 by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, a proposed constitutional amendment that would permanently extend the state’s half-percent sales tax for roads. Voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2012 that levied the tax, which has a 10-year sunset clause and expires in 2023.
The proposal is the second part of Hutchinson’s plan to eventually raise $300 million a year for the Transportation Department.
Tosh also said his committee will begin deliberating the host of other proposed constitutional amendments. Sen. Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne, who chairs the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, said that panel will begin doing the same.
During each biennial regular session, the General Assembly may refer up to three constitutional amendments to voters in the next general election. House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, said the consensus among members is that the half-percent sales-tax extension should be one of the ballot referrals.
They hope to have a clearer picture by the end of the week about which other two potential amendments should be sent to the ballot. Hendren said all of the proposals have a chance, but he said those on term limits, tort reform and dissolving the biennial fiscal sessions seem to have the broadest support in the Senate. The fiscal sessions began in even-numbered years in 2010.
Shepherd said discussions are ongoing about which measures House members prefer to send to the 2020 ballot.
Tosh said his committee would begin to hear testimony on proposed amendments this week, but action beyond that remains unclear.
“I’ll know more come Monday,” Tosh said last week. “I still haven’t made a decision on whether we’ll vote up or down on them.”
The amendment proposals are in House and Senate joint resolutions. Those placed on the ballot must be approved by both chambers.
Traditionally, the Legislature has waited until the end of the session to take up proposed amendments. This week marks the seventh week of the 2019 session, and leadership currently expects the Legislature to recess by April 12 and officially adjourn May 6 after overriding any vetoes or correcting errors. The session began Jan. 14.
Hendren said the earlier consideration of proposed amendments reflects the pace at which lawmakers are trying to work.
“We’re trying to keep the session moving and move as fast as we can,” he said. “I want us to be thorough, but I don’t want us to be down here longer than we have to.”
Holcomb, the highway bill’s sponsor, and Shepherd both said they expect SB336 to pass through the House without any major hiccups. The bill enjoyed broad, bipartisan support in the Senate, passing 27-8 on Thursday.
The bill will need a simple majority, 51 votes, in the House, which has 76 Republicans and 24 Democrats.
House Majority Leader Marcus Richmond, R-Harvey, said that just about every member can find a small detail in the bill to oppose, but he said he’s optimistic. The half-percent tax’s extension, he said, will have a much tougher time mustering 51 votes.
Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, said that her caucus overall is supportive of an investment in highways but still has some concerns about portions of the governor’s proposal.
Caldwell said his committee has four more bills to review that are part of Hutchinson’s plan to reduce the number of Cabinet-level agencies from 42 to 15.
Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, is leading the reorganization effort. He said legislative staff members are combining 15 bills into one 2,000-page bill that he hopes to file on March 8.
SCOPE OF PRACTICE
The Senate and House Public Health committees will continue hearing legislation that would change the scopes of practice for certain medical professionals.
Rep. Jack Ladyman, R-Jonesboro, chairman of the House committee, said the panel would consider nurse practitioner bills on Tuesday and miscellaneous scope-of-practice bills on Thursday.
The Senate chairman, Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, didn’t return a phone message Friday.
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