Ses­sion kicks off to­day at Capi­tol

Ef­fi­ciency is key, state se­na­tor says

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - FRONT PAGE - JOHN MORITZ

Gov. Asa Hutchin­son pre­dicted last week that the loom­ing reg­u­lar ses­sion of the 92nd Gen­eral Assem­bly — set to kick off to­day — would be “one of the most his­toric and trans­for­ma­tive” of his life­time, as he plans to im­ple­ment sev­eral key pieces from his suc­cess­ful re-elec­tion cam­paign.

Leg­isla­tive lead­ers said the broad agenda for the ses­sion means that they will have to keep them­selves and mem­bers fo­cused to avoid the ses­sion drag­ging deep into the spring.

“No longer than nec­es­sary,” Se­nate Pres­i­dent Pro Tem­pore-elect Jim Hen­dren, R-Sul­phur Springs, said Fri­day when asked to pre­dict how long the ses­sion would last.

“Our re­spon­si­bil­ity is to try and man­age the ses­sion in a way that we have full days and we do ef­fi­cient work,” Hen­dren con­tin­ued. “Also that we don’t leave work not fin­ished be­cause of some de­sire to ar­ti­fi­cially ad­journ on a cer­tain day.”

The long­est reg­u­lar ses­sion in re­cent years was that of the 89th Gen­eral Assem­bly in 2013, which be­gan Jan. 14 and did not of­fi­cially ad­journ un­til May 17. By com­par­i­son, the 2017 ses­sion, which be­gan Jan. 9, ended sine die on May 1.

Un­der the Arkansas Con­sti­tu­tion, reg­u­lar ses­sions are con­fined to no more than 60 days (days off, in­clud­ing week­ends, are counted) un­less ex­tended to up to 75 days by a twothirds vote of each cham­ber. Mem­bers may also agree to meet past 75 days by a

● three-fourths vote.

Reg­u­lar ses­sions be­gin the sec­ond Mon­day in Jan­uary in odd-num­bered years, after Novem­ber gen­eral elec­tions. Be­sides re­sult­ing in new and amended state laws, reg­u­lar ses­sions also in­clude the pas­sage of fund­ing bills and adop­tion of pro­posed con­sti­tu­tional amend­ments to re­fer to vot­ers. In even-num­bered years, law­mak­ers meet in fis­cal ses­sions to ap­prove fund­ing bills. The first fis­cal ses­sion was in 2010.

The lengthy ses­sion in 2013 came after a Repub­li­can takeover of both cham­bers of the Leg­is­la­ture as a re­sult of the pre­vi­ous elec­tions, while a Demo­crat, Mike Beebe, still served as gover­nor. Law­mak­ers that year also ap­proved an ex­pan­sion of Med­i­caid un­der the so-called pri­vate op­tion, which later be­came known as Arkansas Works un­der Hutchin­son.

Fund­ing for Arkansas Works must be re-ap­proved with ev­ery bud­get, and has been the sub­ject of sev­eral con­tentious votes in re­cent years.

This year, how­ever, Hutchin­son and leg­isla­tive lead­ers pre­dict that with the ad­di­tion of a new work re­quire­ment in 2017, the pro­gram would be less con­tentious.

The work re­quire­ment has led to nearly 17,000 Arkansans be­ing re­moved from the pro­gram, which still pro­vides health care to around 234,000 low-in­come peo­ple.

“I’m op­ti­mistic that it’s some­thing we’ll be able to ad­dress and move for­ward,” said House Speaker Matthew Shep­herd, R-El Do­rado.

The co-chair­man of the Joint Bud­get Com­mit­tee, Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, said he also felt con­fi­dent about the ap­pro­pri­a­tion’s even­tual pas­sage, while cau­tion­ing that de­bate over the pro­gram — cre­ated un­der then-Pres­i­dent Barack Obama’s sig­na­ture health care law — was not fully in the past.

“I think we’ll adopt it,” Teague said. “It could get dicey.”

More than 200 pieces of leg­is­la­tion were pre-filed ahead of the ses­sion, though thou­sands more bills will be in­tro­duced in the weeks ahead, based on data from pre­vi­ous ses­sions.

Pre-filed bills con­cern­ing Con­fed­er­ate mon­u­ments, ac­cess to abor­tion and the use of self-de­fense — the lat­ter sim­i­lar to “stand-your­ground” laws passed in other states — have al­ready drawn at­ten­tion on so­cial me­dia, and are likely to rouse de­bates dur­ing the ses­sion.

In ad­di­tion, sev­eral Democrats have promised to file “red flag” leg­is­la­tion aimed at set­ting up a process for judges to or­der the tem­po­rary seizure of firearms from peo­ple deemed to be a risk to them­selves or oth­ers. Some Repub­li­cans, mean­while, have vowed to op­pose such mea­sures, though Hutchin­son said he would be “open” to a red-flag law.

Repub­li­cans and anti-abor­tion Democrats could also take up a num­ber of mea­sures aimed at mak­ing ac­cess to abor­tion more re­stric­tive than any­where in the coun­try. Jerry Cox, the pres­i­dent of the faith-based Fam­ily Coun­cil, said his goal for the ses­sion is for the Leg­is­la­ture to pass laws that would have Arkansas deemed the most “pro-life” state in the coun­try, based on rank­ings com­piled by Amer­i­cans United for Life. The group now ranks Arkansas sec­ond, be­hind Ari­zona.

State Sen.-elect Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, said last week that he’s “ready to end abor­tion al­to­gether” through leg­is­la­tion that would prompt a chal­lenge to the U.S. Supreme Court’s

1973 Roe v.

Wade de­ci­sion, which has pro­tected abor­tion ac­cess for decades.

Ballinger said his de­ci­sion on whether to pur­sue such a step “will play into what [Supreme Court Jus­tice Ruth Bader] Gins­berg does,” re­fer­ring

to the 85-year-old mem­ber of the lib­eral wing of the Supreme Court. Gins­berg re­cently has suf­fered health is­sues.

Other leg­is­la­tion on so­cial is­sues has al­ready proved overly con­tro­ver­sial.

The Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette re­ported last week on leg­is­la­tion filed by state Rep. Johnny Rye, R- Tru­mann, re­lated to In­ter­net reg­u­la­tion, in­clud­ing a bill that would have re­quired state gov­ern­ment to en­force a ban on In­ter­net pornog­ra­phy. After the news­pa­per re­ported that the leg­is­la­tion was tied to an out-of state man with a his­tory of ar­rests and aliases, Rye said he would pull down the bills.

Speak­ing to re­porters at the Arkansas Press As­so­ci­a­tion on Fri­day morn­ing, both Hen­dren and Shep­herd were asked about the story, and said it served as an ex­am­ple to law­mak­ers who are in­un­dated with leg­isla­tive pro­pos­als ahead of the ses­sion.

“That story was a wake-up call for 135 of us that we have to be care­ful about re­quests for leg­is­la­tion,” Hen­dren said.

Asked if there were any mea­sures or is­sues which they wished to leave out of the ses­sion, both leg­isla­tive lead­ers said they did not see it as their place to at­tempt to block po­ten­tially dis­rup­tive leg­is­la­tion from be­ing filed.

“There’s a bal­ance be­tween try­ing to man­age and also mak­ing sure ev­ery voice is heard,” Hen­dren said.





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