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STATE CAPITOL NEWS IN BRIEF: Union legislation headed to governor | Senators back rise in teacher salaries | Bill to void U.S. gun laws leaves House

by John Moritz, Michael R. Wickline, Rachel Herzog | April 6, 2021 at 2:00 a.m.

Union legislation headed to governor

The Arkansas Senate on Monday voted to send Gov. Asa Hutchinson legislation that would bar many public employees, including teachers, from participating in collective bargaining through a union.

The Senate voted 21-6 to approve the House's amended version of Senate Bill 341 by Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, after the chamber concurred with the amendments.

Other than schoolteachers, the bill would apply to university employees, state workers and court employees. It would not apply to employees of cities and counties, and it exempts police officers, firefighters and certain transit workers.

Public employers covered by the legislation would be required to fire any workers who go on strike or participate in a picket line.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, who is a retired teacher, lamented to senators that the bill "is an insult to our profession."

-- Michael R. Wickline

Senators back rise in teacher salaries

The Senate on Monday voted 33-0 for a bill to enact Gov. Asa Hutchinson's plan to raise Arkansas' average teacher salary by $2,000 over the next two years, from $49,822 to $51,822.

The Senate voted to send House Bill 1614 by Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, to the governor.

The bill would create a new category of education funding -- the teacher salary equalization fund. It's identical to Senate Bill 504 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, which has cleared the Senate and the House Education Committee.

In 2019, the highest average salary in any one district was $60,963 while the lowest was $39,578, or a difference of $21,385, according to the bills.

Irvin has said the legislation aims to help school districts that pay below the state's average. The raises would be financed with $25 million in fiscal 2022.

In 2019, the Legislature enacted Gov. Asa Hutchinson's plan to boost the minimum teacher salary from $31,800 to $36,000 a year by 2023 in Act 170 of 2019. The minimum salary is $33,800 in the 2020-21 school year and goes to $34,900 next school year, before rising to $36,000 in 2022-23.

-- Michael R. Wickline

Education-funding measure approved

The Senate on Monday approved a bill that would boost the public schools' per-student foundation funding along with several other funding categories.

The Senate voted 34-0 to approve House Bill 1677 by Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, sending the bill to the governor.

The bill would increase foundation funding from $7,018 per student in the 2020-21 school year to $7,182 per student next school year and to $7,349 per student in the 2022-23 school year. The legislation also increases per-student funding amounts for alternative learning environments, English-language learners, enhanced student achievement and professional development.

In November, Hutchinson said his proposed $5.84 billion general revenue budget allows for "the largest increase in education in more than a decade."

-- Michael R. Wickline

Votes short for bill on alcohol delivery

Legislation that would allow restaurants to deliver beer, wine and mixed drinks to customers along with their food fell short of approval in the Senate on Monday.

Senate Bill 339, by Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, aims to make permanent an allowance made by Gov. Asa Hutchinson for restaurants during the covid-19 pandemic.

After concurring with the House's amendment to the bill, the Senate's 13-10 vote Monday fell five votes short of the 18 required for approval in the 35-member body. The Senate later expunged the vote to clear the way for another try.

On March 15, the Senate voted 19-11 to approve the bill. The House amended it and sent it back so the Senate could concur with the change.

The measure would apply to restaurants in wet counties with active liquor licenses, and home deliveries would be restricted to a six-pack, a bottle of wine or a 32-ounce mixed drink. The bill wouldn't apply to a private club or a restaurant located in a dry area.

-- Michael R. Wickline

Abortion-clinic pact bill clears Senate

The Arkansas Senate on Monday approved legislation requiring abortion clinics to have written agreements with hospitals capable of treating patients with "unforeseen complications" from abortion procedures and with a local ambulance service for the transport of these patients to the hospital.

The 28-5 vote sent Senate Bill 527 by Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, to the House for further action.

Gilmore has called his legislation a "continuity of care" bill and it attracted opposition in a Senate committee last week from two abortion-rights advocates who said it was unnecessary and unconstitutional.

Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, questioned whether there was a similar bill in Texas struck down as unconstitutional.

Gilmore said a similar bill in Kentucky was upheld in the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Earlier this session, lawmakers voted to ban all abortions in Arkansas except to protect the life or health of the mother. Opponents have vowed to challenge that law, which was signed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, and lawmakers continue to pass anti-abortion measures.

-- Michael R. Wickline and John Moritz

House OKs police mental-health bill

The House voted overwhelmingly Monday to require police agencies in Arkansas to provide support to officers seeking mental health services after a "critical incident."

House Bill 1680, by Rep. Jay Richardson, D-Fort Smith, deals with incidents that have "a stressful impact sufficient to overwhelm a person's usually effective coping skills."

The bill would require departments to address such incidents by either requiring an officer to seek a mental health professional or peer support, or to offer assistance to officers who voluntarily seek support.

Richardson said the bill had the support of Arkansas State Police and other agencies. Rep. Keith Slape, R-Compton, a former county sheriff and president of the Arkansas Sheriffs' Association, spoke in favor of the bill.

"I was astonished how many agencies in this state state do not have anything on mental health for their officers," Slape said.

HB1680 passed the House on a 93-1 vote. It now heads to the Senate.

-- John Moritz

House favors 'fetus' in criminal code

Legislation that would include an unborn fetus under the definition of a "person" in the aggravating circumstances in Arkansas' criminal code was passed by the House on Monday.

House Bill 1646, by Rep. Joe Cloud, R-Russellville, was written in response to an Arkansas Supreme Court decision last year to overturn the death sentence of Brad Hunter, a Cleveland County man convicted of killing Cherrish Allbright, whom he believed to be pregnant with his child.

While the prosecutor in that case had pointed to Allbright's pregnancy as an aggravating circumstance warranting the death penalty, the Supreme Court said that the section of the code dealing with aggravating circumstances did not include an unborn fetus under the definition of "person," even though that definition was included elsewhere in the code.

Cloud said HB1646 was being misrepresented by opponents as a bill to subject abortion providers to the death penalty.

The House voted 84-4 to add the definition. HB1646 now heads to the Senate.

-- John Moritz

Bill to void U.S. gun laws leaves House

One of several bills proposing to nullify federal gun laws -- and raising concerns over constitutionality by opponents -- passed the House on Monday with no debate.

House Bill 1390, by Rep. Johnny Rye, R-Trumann, would declare all federal gun laws that infringe on the Second Amendment null and void in Arkansas unless they are ratified by the state Legislature. The bill does not state say who would be in charge of determining whether federal gun laws infringe on the Second Amendment.

The bill is similar to several other pieces of legislation that deal with the concept of state nullification of federal gun laws. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said last week that he had "significant constitutional concerns on those bills."

HB1390 was passed on a 75-11 vote and now heads to the Senate.

-- John Moritz

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