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story.lead_photo.caption Rep. Carlton Wing (left) squeezes into the frame Wednesday on the House floor as Rep. Jon Eubanks and Rep. Jamie Scott hug and pose for a photo at the close of legislative business. More photos are available at arkansasonline.com/411genassembly/ - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

Before recessing for two weeks, the 92nd General Assembly on Wednesday completed action on measures that will implement Gov. Asa Hutchinson's proposed reorganization of state government; put a $5.75 billion general revenue budget into effect in the next fiscal year; and disburse almost $85 million in surplus funds.

Legislative leaders said they plan for the House and Senate to reconvene this year's regular session on April 24 to take any necessary action such as fixing bills or overriding vetoes before adjourning for good. Under a resolution approved earlier, the Legislature may reconvene before noon May 6.

Wednesday was the 87th day of the regular session, so if lawmakers return for only April 24 before adjourning, that would mean this year's regular session lasted 88 days. In contrast, the General Assembly met in regular session for 96 days in 2011, 101 days in 2013, 82 days in 2015 and 86 days in 2017. (Fiscal sessions, in even-numbered years, are of shorter duration.)

Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, told senators that Arkansas is going to be better because of the Legislature's last 87 days of work.

Gallery: 92nd General Assembly

"We passed a highway program. We've raised teachers' pay," he said.

"We passed legislation to cut the top income tax rate; to increase the pay for state police; to strengthen the Ethics Commission and passed new ethics laws; to transform state government, a huge undertaking; to transform our corporate tax rate; to fund the Cancer Institute to make Arkansas one of the leaders in cancer research; to reform our juvenile-justice system; and just today, to have an Electric Motorized Scooter Act," Hendren said, with his reference to the scooter bill drawing chuckles from some senators and observers.

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature]

"But the fact is, we have done a lot of things here and it is easy for us to think, 'Look at what we in the Senate have done.' I think all of us know we would not have done anything, anything, without the group of people that are standing around here," he said, before naming various legislative staff members.

Senate Democratic leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis said he considered the session to be a good one and Hutchinson had a good session, too.

"I agree with the president pro tempore that there were a lot of good measures that came out, a lot of good debate," Ingram said in an interview.

"I think everybody is ready to go home, but we can go home with the knowledge that we addressed a lot of major issues in the state, particularly highways, one that has been sort of hanging over us for a number of years. I'm very pleased that we have taken a step to support our infrastructure," Ingram said.

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said his favorite bill of the session was the highway plan.

"It's just been such a big issue," he said in an interview.

"I know there's still that part to be determined by the voters, but over the course of eight years here, every two years hearing that we have a funding challenge and trying to find common ground, and really only being able to do some short-term fixes, the fact that we worked real hard with the governor's office and the Senate and with the membership on both ends to come up with something, that I think a lot of people probably thought couldn't be done," Shepherd said

Act 416 will levy a wholesale tax on gasoline and diesel fuel and increase registration fees for hybrid and electric vehicles, effective Oct. 1, and reallocate casino tax revenue and other state revenue to raise about $95 million a year more for highways. The measure also is projected by state officials to raise about $13 million a year more apiece for roads of cities and counties.

To increase funding for highways, the House and Senate voted to refer a proposed constitutional amendment that would permanently extend the state's half-percent sales tax for highways, initially approved by voters in 2012 for a 10-year period. The proposal is House Joint Resolution by 1018 by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage. State officials project that voter approval of the proposal would raise about $205 million more a year for highways and $44 million apiece more for cities and counties.

As for the session, Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale, said, "It's hard to even have expectations going in. You never really know what to expect as a freshman and I will say overall it exceeded my expectations, especially in the willingness of so many of my colleagues to collaborate and to come together to find common ground and solutions that really may have felt partisan on the front end, but then ended up being a win-win for everyone involved."

"This DACA-nurse bill is really a perfect example of that. Of people who have two totally different perspectives, even on immigration, on a lot of issues politically, but found common ground here," she said in an interview.

She was referring to House Bill 1552, which she sponsored, that would allow the state Board of Nursing to issue licenses to recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy created by President Barack Obama in 2012.

"People really were great to me and willing to partner with me and willing to collaborate," she said.

Among other things, Hutchinson and the Republican-controlled Legislature enacted legislation that would ban abortions 18 weeks into a pregnancy with an exception for medical emergencies or pregnancies resulting from rape or incest, and prohibit abortions, except to save the life of the mother, if the U.S. Supreme Court's 1973 decision in Roe v. Wade is overturned.

REORGANIZATION

Before the session began, Hutchinson said he wanted to reorganize government to reduce the number of state agencies reporting directly to him from 42 to 15. The plan was in House Bill 1763 by Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock.

Final action came Wednesday, when, after concurring with a Senate amendment to HB1763, the House voted 96-0 to send the bill to the governor.

Hutchinson's reorganization plan represents the most sweeping overhaul of state government since 1971, when Gov. Dale Bumpers, a Democrat, led an initiative to meld 60 agencies into 13 departments under Act 38 of 1971.

Hutchinson said he is delighted with the passage of the legislation and he plans to sign it into law today.

"Historic change is never easy, but these efforts to increase efficiencies and improve services in state government are long overdue," the governor said in a written statement. "This is a great day that sets Arkansas on a course for an even greater future with a state government that is more efficient, a better steward of taxpayer dollars, and serves the people of Arkansas well."

The Republican governor has estimated that the reorganization effort could save about $15 million a year beginning in fiscal 2021, which starts July 1, 2020.

HB1763 would create 15 Cabinet-level departments headed by secretaries, starting in July.

It would establish the following Cabinet-level departments: agriculture; commerce; corrections; education; energy and environment; finance and administration; health; human services; inspector general; labor and licensing; military; parks, heritage and tourism; public safety; transformation and shared services; and veteran affairs.

The bill would permit Hutchinson to appoint a 25-member transition team composed of state employees to help in the implementation of the measure and the team would expire this year on July 31.

The legislation would require the governor or his designee to present a report by July 21 to the House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs committees with a proposed timeline for the implementation of the Transformation and Efficiency Act of 2019 and a summary of any other work undertaken by the transition team.

Hutchinson said he plans to announce the appointment of a 15-member transition team today.

BUDGET, RAINY-DAY FUNDS

Also Wednesday, the House and Senate sent the governor bills that would distribute the state's proposed general revenue budget of $5.75 billion to various programs in the fiscal year starting July 1.

In a 35-0 vote, the Senate approved House Bill 1876 -- the Revenue Stabilization Act for fiscal 2020.

In an 87-5 vote, the House approved identical legislation -- Senate Bill 597. Republican Reps. Joe Cloud of Russellville, Mickey Gates of Hot Springs, Robin Lundstrum of Elm Springs, Austin McCollum of Bentonville and Clint Penzo of Springdale voted against the legislation.

The bills would distribute $124.1 million more in general revenue in fiscal 2020 than the fiscal 2019 budget. Most of the increase in fiscal 2020 would go to the Department of Human Services, which would get a $68.2 million increase to $1.73 billion, and the Public School Fund, which would get a $30.7 million increase to $2.25 billion.

The cumulative impact of tax cut and increase measures enacted in this year's session are projected to reduce general revenue by $9.3 million in fiscal 2020, $63.7 million in fiscal 2021, $102.9 million in fiscal 2022 and then $105.4 million in fiscal 2022, according to state Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin.

Act 182 will phase in a reduction in the state's top individual income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 5.9 percent over a two-year period, starting Jan. 1 of next year. When fully implemented, it will reduce revenue by $97 million, according to the finance department.

In other action, the Senate voted 35-0 to approve HB1865 that would distribute up to $54.6 million in state surplus funds to several projects and up to $30 million in surplus funds for the governor to spend on projects. The House voted 84-8 to approve identical legislation, SB595.

The bills require the state treasurer to set aside the first $54.6 million of the funds transferred and credited to the rainy-day fund from surplus funds for several projects.

These projects include:

• Up to $30 million to the Quick Action Closing Fund for incentives to attract new business and economic development.

• Up to $10.5 million to the Department of Correction for lease payments for prison projects.

• Up to $10 million to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences' National Cancer Institute Designation Trust Fund.

HB1865 and SB595 also would provide up to $30 million in rainy-day funds to the governor, who would be able to release the funds for certain projects requiring legislative approval and others requiring legislative review, according to a legislative staff member.

Asked to sum up the session, Hutchinson said, "We'll have some more next week, so I won't wax eloquent on that at this point."

Information for this article was contributed by John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun
House members relax Wednesday as session business draws to a close. More photos are available at arkansasonline.com/411genassembly/

A Section on 04/11/2019

Print Headline: Arkansas lawmakers say they achieved great deal in session

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