Arkansas' House and Senate leaders on Friday asked Gov. Asa Hutchinson to call a special legislative session to take place after the ongoing fiscal session adjourns to consider bills on regulating pharmacy benefit managers and amending the law on open containers of alcoholic beverages in vehicles.
House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, made their requests in separate but identical letters to the Republican governor on the fifth day of this year's fiscal session. The Legislature didn't meet Friday; it returns to business Tuesday.
Fiscal sessions are held to consider only appropriation bills; special votes are needed to consider other legislation in a fiscal session.
Gillam and Dismang said they are aiming to wrap up the fiscal session that started Monday by mid-March or earlier if possible.
Hutchinson will review the legislative leaders' letters this weekend and make a decision next week, said the governor's spokesman, J.R. Davis.
In their letters, Gillam and Dismang said, "[T]here are several policy-related issues that need to be addressed prior to the meeting of the 92nd General Assembly in 2019.
"However, it is our desire to maintain the integrity and voter intent of this fiscal session by focusing strictly on appropriation bills and the budgetary matters of the state. As such, we respectfully request that you consider calling an extraordinary session of the General Assembly to address those issues that we believe are in need of immediate attention."
One matter is the need to license and regulate pharmacy benefit managers through the state Department of Insurance.
The other is "an issue affecting highway funding as it relates to current law regarding an open container of alcohol in a motor vehicle," they said in their letters.
Gillam and Dismang wrote that they understand the governor may decide additional items are in need of immediate attention in a special session.
To expedite a possible special session, they said they are asking lawmakers seeking to introduce a bill to provide a final draft for review by Feb. 26. Gillam and Dismang wrote they want bill drafts be accompanied by the signatures of two-thirds of the lawmakers in each chamber to demonstrate support for these policy changes before the matters are placed on the governor's call for a special session.
When calling a special session, the governor issues a proclamation outlining the reasons for lawmakers to meet.
By limiting the potential special session to bills with broad-based support, Dismang said in an interview that he hopes to keep the session short.
"If we have an extraordinary session, I want us to be in for three days and out in three days," Dismang said. That's the minimum time for a special session under the Arkansas Constitution.
The first bill mentioned in the leaders' letters -- regulation and licensure of pharmacy benefit managers -- was proposed after hundreds of spectators attended a legislative committee meeting 2½ weeks ago, where pharmacists complained about steep cuts to the reimbursement rates they get from the pharmacy benefit managers.
Earlier this week, Sen. Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne, said there is a good chance that he would attempt to persuade his colleagues in the fiscal session to block approval of the bill that distributes general revenue to agencies if he didn't get a hearing for his proposal to authorize the Insurance Department to license and regulate pharmacy benefit managers.
The bill he would block was the Revenue Stabilization Act, which would set spending priorities for fiscal 2019 starting July 1.
In a fiscal session, the Arkansas Constitution requires a two-thirds vote of the Senate and House to allow the introduction of a nonappropriation bill. That is 24 votes in the Senate, which now has 32 members and three vacant seats, and 67 votes in the House, which has 99 members and one vacant seat. The first step is to file a resolution allowing introduction of the bill.
Caldwell said early Friday evening that statewide interest in the pharmacy issue makes it an easy candidate for a special session right away.
Caldwell and Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, have filed resolutions that would allow them to introduce legislation that would place the licensure and oversight of the benefit managers under the insurance commissioner, who is the director of the Insurance Department. That would allow the state to more effectively punish bad actors, Caldwell said Friday.
While Caldwell envisioned easily getting the requisite signatures for his special-session legislation, Senate Republican Whip Bart Hester of Cave Springs said the regulatory proposals would find a tough audience in the Republican-dominated Legislature.
"I do think it will be difficult for them," Hester said, adding that a final draft of the bill has not been circulated. "It's changing every other hour."
Caldwell said Friday that "we are rewriting" the bill and he intended to meet with CVS Pharmacy officials on Tuesday to get their feedback.
"I don't think we know what the final product for that licensure bill on PBMs will look like today, but again we really want to push the members to work together and come to a consensus," Dismang said.
The second issue mentioned in legislative leaders' letter is changing state law regarding open alcohol containers in a vehicle.
Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, and Rep. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, have filed separate resolutions to introduce legislation to fix state law on this matter.
When asked about Dismang and Gillam's request Friday, Sample said, "That doesn't bother me."
The proposed legislation would fix three areas of state law that the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration determined did not meet federal statutory and regulatory requirements, said state Department of Transportation spokesman Danny Straessle.
"The first of these was to define what an alcoholic beverage was; the second was to delete an exemption for a container within a person's reach but in a locked area such as a locking console or glovebox; and the third is to make the offense applicable to all vehicles located on a highway or public right-of-way without regard to whether the vehicle was 'in operation' at the time," he said Friday afternoon in an email.
Under federal law, a state that is out of compliance with federal open-container laws as of Oct. 1 of any given year will have 2.5 percent of National Highway Performance Program and Surface Transportation Block Grant Program funds distributed to the Highway Safety Improvement Program category of funding, putting a significant limitation on what that money may be used for, Straessle said. That would limit the use of about $12 million for highway construction and maintenance to safety purposes starting in the federal fiscal year beginning Oct. 1, 2018, he said.
Other than the two matters named in Gillam and Dismang's letter, another half-dozen resolutions have been filed seeking to bring other business into the fiscal session. Dismang said he did not know if any dealt with anything substantial enough to get the backing of two-thirds of lawmakers.
Earlier this week, Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, said he had been assured by Hutchinson that an amendment he's proposed to the "campus-carry" gun law he sponsored last year would be considered either in a special session or through the rule-making process.
Act 562 of 2017, sponsored by Garner, allows concealed-carry permit holders who take additional training to take handguns onto college campuses and other public buildings. The problem, Garner says, is that the law was written to require all permit instructors to teach the extra class, even if they don't want to. Garner has proposed letting the instructors opt out.
Two Democrats who fought against Act 562 last year have said that if Garner's proposal gets a hearing, they want similar consideration of their legislation to prohibit carrying handguns in dorm rooms.
Other proposals address the assessment fees placed on hospitals; school-choice transfers; and enrollment in the Arkansas Works program. Arkansas Works is the state's version of Medicaid expansion, which has about 285,000 enrollees.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, is shown in this file photo.
A Section on 02/17/2018
Print Headline: Governor asked to call extra session on 2 topics