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Lawmakers return to the Capitol this week to consider stiffer penalties for aggravated animal cruelty under a proposal that has united animal-welfare activists and farmers, groups that were on opposite sides of the same debate two years ago.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Wednesday is expected to endorse a bill pushed by Attorney General Dustin McDaniel that would make aggravated cruelty to dogs, cats and horses a felony on the first offense. McDaniel and the bill's sponsor have predicted that the bill will end up on the governor's desk for his signature by the end of the month.

"I certainly think the chances are better than they've ever been before," said Sen. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville, who sponsored the animal-cruelty legislation. The measure is co-sponsored by six of the eight members of the Senate panel.

The bill would make aggravated cruelty to a dog, cat or horse a felony on the first offense, punishable by a fine of up to $10,000 and up to six years in prison. The bill also includes a five-year sentencing enhancement for anyone convicted of torturing an animal in the presence of a child.

Animal cruelty is now a misdemeanor, punishable by a fine of up to $1,000 and up to a year in prison.

The legislation was crafted after McDaniel negotiated compromises between animal welfare and hunters and farmers' groups, which had sparred over past attempts to tighten animal cruelty laws. In 2007, a similar bill died in a House committee after farmers and hunters expressed concern about it.

The groups supporting the bill include the Arkansas Farm Bureau and the Humane Society of the United States.

The session resumes Wednesday after a long weekend for the Martin Luther King holiday on Monday and for Tuesday's inauguration of Barack Obama. The 87th General Assembly began last week with a focus on health care as Gov. Mike Beebe unveiled his plan to hike cigarette and chewing tobacco taxes to pay for a trauma system and an expansion of the state's health programs.

Rep. Gregg Reep said he hopes to file the legislation for the $87.8 million in tobacco tax hikes either Wednesday or Thursday. House Republicans have said they plan to file an alternate bill that would fund a trauma system by raising the fees for drunken and reckless driving convictions.

Lawmakers also plan to take a look at how annual legislative sessions approved by voters will change the way they do business. The Joint Budget Committee planned to meet Wednesday morning to discuss changes they will face under a constitutional amendment endorsed by voters in November requiring the Legislature to meet and budget annually, rather than every other year.

Under the amendment, legislators would meet in regular session one year and then handle only budget matters the following year during a fiscal session.

Sen. Gilbert Baker, the Senate co-chair of the panel, said the committee needs to work out rules on how to handle the budget sesssions, including budget hearings traditionally held before a session. Under the biennial system used up until now, lawmakers would begin looking at the two-year budget in fall hearings.

"The question that arises is, how do we lead into the session?" said Baker, R-Conway. "What kind of pre-hearings are we going to have? I have very little interest in a lot of pre-hearings."

Whatever rules lawmakers develop for the annual sessions may become moot if opponents of the new amendment get their way. Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, has proposed that lawmakers ask voters next year to repeal the annual sessions amendment.

A lawmaker who wants the state to move the date of its presidential primary elections says he'll bring his proposal before a House panel on Wednesday. Rep. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, wants the state to move the presidential primaries from February to May, when primaries for other offices are held.

The Legislature voted in 2005 to move the presidential contests to February, arguing that it would give the state bigger heft in national politics. Instead, Arkansas was joined by more than 20 other states that held their nominating contests that day.

Gov. Mike Beebe and Secretary of State Charlie Daniels have said they support moving back to a May presidential primary.

Woods said a fiscal-impact statement on the bill showed that the state would save $1.7 million if it moves back to just one date for primary elections.

"That's a lot of money that we're going to cut right off the top and be able to give back to the people or use for other things," Woods said.

The House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee is also expected to consider legislation by Rep. Dan Greenberg, R-Little Rock, that would prevent retaliation against public employees for requesting records under the state's Freedom of Information Act.

Lawmakers will get a second chance Wednesday to give a founding father his due when Rep. Lindsley Smith brings her proposal to set aside Jan. 29 as Thomas Paine Day in honor of the author of "Common Sense," a pamphlet published in January 1776 arguing for a declaration of independence from the British empire.

An identical proposal by Smith, D-Fayetteville, was rejected by the House in 2007 after lawmakers questioned Paine's writings critical of the Bible and Christianity.

On Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee is expected to consider a measure to remove the statute of limitations for rape charges. Currently, murder is the only crime in which cases can be prosecuted without a limit on the time passed since the crime was committed. Rape cases must now be filed within six years of the event.

Committee chairman Steve Harrelson, D-Texarkana, said the committee may also consider a bill Thursday that would add stricter penalties to a 2007 video-voyeur law. The bill by Donna Hutchinson, R-Bella Vista, proposes expanding the law to increase the penalties for violators who send or post online the voyeuristic videos or photographs.

A bill to ban hand-held cell phone use while driving is expected to come before the House Transportation Committee on Thursday. The measure by Rep. Ray Kidd, D-Jonesboro, would allow drivers to use hands-free cell phones and would exempt law enforcement, firefighters and emergency workers who are performing their jobs.

For more information see Wednesday's Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

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