Legislation cutting the lottery scholarship for future recipients during their first year in college cleared the Arkansas Senate on Monday over the objections of opponents who worry it will reduce access to college for poor and black students.
Across the Capitol, the House on Monday approved a bill that would allow concealed handguns in polling places and another bill that would cut unemployment benefits.
Monday was the 57th day of the regular session, with legislative leaders wanting to recess the session by early April and adjourn by early May.
The lottery scholarship bill, Senate Bill 5, would cut first-year funding for future recipients. The actual name for the award is the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship. Since the lottery's start on Sept. 28, 2009, more than 30,000 students have received the funds during each of the past five fiscal years.
The Senate voted 22-12 Monday to approve the bill, sponsored by Sen. Jim Hickey, R-Texarkana, and send it to the state House of Representatives -- four days after the bill fell a vote short of the 18 required for approval in a 17-9 vote.
Democratic Sen. Bobby Pierce of Sheridan joined 21 Republicans in voting for the bill. Republican Sens. Jake Files of Fort Smith and Jeremy Hutchinson of Little Rock joined 10 Democrats in voting against it.
Hickey said the legislation is needed to stop the program from running out of funds as early as February 2016.
Starting in the 2015-16 academic year, the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarship would be reduced from $2,000 to $1,000 for the freshman year at the two and four-year colleges. The scholarship would be increased from $3,000 to $4,000 for the sophomore year at the four-year colleges and increased from $2,000 to $3,000 for the sophomore year at the two-year colleges.
Scholarship recipients would receive $4,000 in the junior year and $5,000 as seniors at the four-year universities.
SB5 also would change the scholarship's eligibility requirements so future high school graduates would be required to have an ACT score of at least 19 or the equivalent on a comparable college entrance exam.
Under current state law, the graduates are required to have successfully completed the Smart Core curriculum and achieved either a high school grade-point average of at least 2.5 or a minimum score of 19 on the ACT or the equivalent.
Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said that "to pass a bill that on its face excludes the majority of African-American children from having a slice of the great dream that is American is simply to me unfair and unwarranted of this great body."
"We need to look at a compromise," she said.
Hickey replied, "Doing nothing is not an option."
In a 27-0 vote, the Senate sent the governor HB1177 by Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, that aims to exempt natural-hair braiders from a state law that requires a cosmetology license and 1,500 hours of training, often costing thousands of dollars.
The legislation was written in response to litigation filed in federal court in June challenging those regulations, which exist in only a handful of states.
The Senate also took up abortion-related legislation.
In a 26-5 vote, the Senate approved SB569 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, which would bar the disbursement of funds by the state to "certain entities," specifically those that perform elective abortions or give abortion referrals.
The bill would not affect funding of a hospital, medical school or university, nor apply to funding available through the Medicaid program. The bill would cut off any funding through grants or other means to Planned Parenthood operators in the state.
The bill goes to the House.
In a 28-0 vote, the Senate sent to the House SB391 by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, that would clear the way for shifting $2 million a year from the state's tobacco prevention and cessation program in the state Department of Health to a Medicaid program account.
In his proposed budget for fiscal 2016, Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed the reallocation of funds. The bill goes to the House.
In a 18-9 vote, the Senate narrowly approved SB756 by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, who said it is aimed at standardizing assessment of off-premises billboards in counties across the state and preventing substantial tax increases on billboard owners.
The bill would require the market value of an off-premises advertising sign to be determined based on its cost and bar "an adjustment" based on the traffic count or other factors relating to the location of the sign. The bill goes to the House.
In a 29-1 vote, the Senate approved SB797 by Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, who said it is aimed at cracking down on people purchasing a large amount of tickets to sporting events and concerts and then reselling them for a higher price.
But Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, who voted against the bill, warned that it "would create a hole in our scalping law." The bill goes to the House.
In a 73-17 vote, the House approved House Bill 1432, by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, D- Warren, to allow concealed handguns to be carried into polling places. The legislation would not lift prohibitions on some places that serve as polling places but otherwise have restrictions barring concealed weapons, such as courthouses.
"There's been some misconception about this bill from the Association of Counties, that we were going to open up courthouses, schools, colleges and other things," Wardlaw said. "But if you read the concealed handgun law, we did not change any of those other statutes, so you are still prohibited from carrying in all those other places."
Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, said he had concerns that the presence of guns would have a chilling effect on voter participation.
"The right to vote is one thing that should not be deterred or dissuaded or discouraged and we live in times where when people see guns they are encouraged too often to act in response," he said. "I would suggest to you the importance of the vote is more important than the privilege of carrying a gun anywhere especially into a polling place."
In other business, the House passed legislation that would cut unemployment benefits from 25 weeks to 20 weeks and reconfigure the salary used to determine benefits by averaging four three-month periods instead of one. HB1489, by Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, passed 73-11 with no one speaking against the bill.
"Right now the maximum unemployment a person can receive in Arkansas is $451. The minimum is $81. This bill does not change that," Jean said. "We're four from the bottom [among states] on per capita income yet we are paying one of the higher unemployment taxes."
Fellow Republicans have said that the bill is a way to boost the state's unemployment insurance fund after the state had to borrow more than $360 million from the federal government during the recession. They've also said the cuts will bring Arkansas' benefits more in line with other surrounding states.
The Arkansas chapter of the AFL-CIO has opposed the bill, saying the unemployment fund is solvent without the changes, which they said will cut about $50 million from unemployment checks annually.
Also Monday, the House voted 80 to 3 to approve HB1495, by Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, which would give school districts the power to allow advertisements on the outside of school buses. It would give the Arkansas Department of Education the final say on what advertising is allowed including rule making power to ban ads about smoking, drinking or other behavior deemed inappropriate for children.
Legislation eliminating testing requirements for home-schooled students also passed the House. HB1391, by Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, would repeal part of Arkansas Code 6-15-504, so that home-schooled Arkansas students would not be required to take the same assessment tests as students in public school districts.
The House also voted 91 to 1 to approve HB1573, by Rep. Camille Bennett, D-Lonoke, which would expand the collection of DNA by Arkansas law enforcement officials. The legislation would require law enforcement to take DNA swabs from anyone arrested on felony charges.
Current law requires DNA samples to be taken from people convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor that counts as a sex crime. Law also requires samples to be taken from anyone suspected of murder, rape, kidnapping or sexual assault.
The House also narrowly passed HB1282, by Rep. Marshall Wright, D-Forrest City, which removes a mandate that DWI charges be prosecuted fully. The bill, which passed 52 to 30, would give prosecutors more power to plead down DWI charges.
Meanwhile, in the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on Monday, legislators heard from Republican Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, who spoke in favor of a proposed constitutional amendment that would allow the governor to maintain his duties if he traveled out of state. It would also require the governor and lieutenant governor to run on a combined ticket. Current law has the lieutenant governor fill in for an out-of-state governor.
"Arkansans benefit when the governor and lieutenant governor work together as a team, and I think you have a unique situation now... because we have a close working relationship," Griffin said. "But there is no guarantee that in the future that [relationship] would happen... The question is down the road how can we reform the office so we can replicate this?"
Metro on 03/10/2015
Print Headline: Senate OKs cut to scholarships