STATE CAPITOL NEWS IN BRIEF: 2 election changes cleared by Senate | House likes abortion provider restriction | Gun-fee waiver for vets leaves Senate

2 election changes cleared by Senate

The Arkansas Senate on Wednesday approved two bills that would increase the authority of the state election board and of county election boards.

The Senate voted 26-8 to send Senate Bill 498 by Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, to the House.

The bill would require that complaints made to county election boards about alleged election law violations or irregularities be sent to the state Board of Election Commissioners for evaluation, rather than to the county clerk and prosecuting attorney.

Johnson told senators, “I do know of two particular counties where there are problems. This doesn’t specifically address the problem. It just puts into law the proper fact-finder to evaluate the problem.” The Senate voted 27-6 to send Senate Bill 557, also sponsored by Johnson, to the House. That bill would give county election boards the power to supervise all election officials and states that county employees detailed as election officials shall comply with the county board’s directives in election matters.

— Michael R. Wickline

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at]

Gun-fee waiver for vets leaves Senate

Legislation that would exempt veterans and military members from paying the $50 cost of a concealed carry license zipped through the Arkansas Senate on Wednesday.

The Senate voted 33-1 to send Senate Bill 171 by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, to the House for further consideration.

Under the bill, an applicant would be required to submit a copy of a DD214 or similar document or valid military identification card to establish eligibility to pay no concealed carry license fee.

The Arkansas State Police director, Col. Bill Bryant, told a Senate committee Tuesday the bill could reduce revenue for the agency from about $67,000 up to $11.5 million. There are an estimated 230,000 veterans and military members in Arkansas.

“We have plenty of money to make sure our state police are taken care of,” Garner said.

“In fact, this has become more and more of an issue with concealed carry permit licenses being a funding stream for them,” he said. “We should get them out of the game altogether. They don’t like it. They need it and we have plenty of money. We should just make it a general revenue thing and move on out.” Bryant said the state police collected $1.48 million in revenue from concealed carry licenses in fiscal 2020 and about $1.3 million so far in fiscal 2021.

— Michael R. Wickline

Senate advances canvassing rules

The Arkansas Senate approved a bill that would require paid canvassers for statewide ballot measures to be citizens of the United States and Arkansas residents.

The Senate voted 26-7 to approve Senate Bill 614 by Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, sending the bill to the House for further action.

The bill would make it illegal for a person to pay or offer to pay a person or receive payment or agree to receive payment based on the number of signatures obtained by a paid canvasser on a statewide initiative or referendum petition. A violation would be a Class A misdemeanor under the bill.

Davis said people who are paid for each signature, instead of hourly, may be more motivated to collect fraudulent signatures.

She said the bill would place the responsibility on the sponsor of the statewide ballot measures to provide information about background checks of paid canvassers from the Arkansas State Police.

— Michael R. Wickline

Capitol Police shift sent to Senate panel

The Senate on Wednesday voted to refer to its State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee a bill that would transfer the State Capitol Police, now under the secretary of state’s office, to the Department of Public Safety.

The bill was originally in the Joint Committee on Public Retirement and Social Security Programs.

Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, persuaded the divided Senate to approve his motion to transfer his Senate Bill 242 to the Senate State Agencies committee. The bill was sent to the retirement committee when it was a shell bill lacking details, he said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson is neutral on the bill, Hutchinson spokeswoman Katie Beck said afterward.

Secretary of State John Thurston spokesman Kevin Niehaus said, “We hadn’t seen the bill and are going through it now. Based on our initial review, the secretary will not be in favor of this bill.”

— Michael R. Wickline

House likes abortion provider restriction

A bill to bar schools from doing any transactions with abortion providers, including accepting free educational services, was passed 73-18 by the Arkansas House on Wednesday.

In presenting House Bill 1592, Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, noted other laws the state has in place to prohibit public entities from contracting with abortion providers.

Lowery said an open records request had indicated that the Pulaski County Special School District had had Planned Parenthood personnel give sex education instruction and request the number of pregnant students at a school; a spokeswoman for the district said the district had not had and did not currently have any partnerships with Planned Parenthood.

“The truth is that if your main outlet is that you are providing abortions you’re not going to be checking that agenda or those beliefs at the door when you come in,” Lowery said.

In a statement Tuesday, Planned Parenthood Great Plains regional organizer Gloria Pedro said the organization “doesn’t focus on how many pregnant students may or may not be in the class, instead it focuses on providing vital, accurate information.”

— Rachel Herzog

Expanded school vouchers move on

A bill to expand eligibility for the Succeed Scholarship to students from military families was recommended to the Arkansas Senate by committee on Wednesday.

The state voucher program is now open to students with special needs and foster children.

House Bill 1446 sponsor Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, said active duty families “don’t always get to control where they’re stationed and therefore where they live and by extension where they sent their kids to school.” Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, a retired educator, said her public school students had always benefited “from the travel experiences of those young people who are children of the military.” Chesterfield added that she was concerned about the state continuing to pull more students out of public schools and having less money go toward public education.

Ray said HB1446 doesn’t add any money to the Succeed Scholarship program. The students from military families who become eligible for the program upon the bill’s passage would be served with remaining funds after students with disabilities and foster children are served.

— Rachel Herzog

House OKs change to foster-care law

Legislation that would make it easier for youth to reenter foster care after leaving it passed in the Arkansas House on Wednesday.

House Bill 1736 by Rep. Tony Furman, R-Benton, allows former foster children to reenter care by contacting a case worker in writing or going to the state Department of Children and Family Services.

Currently, reentering foster care requires a petition to the court.

The legislation passed 94-0, sending it to the Senate for further consideration.

-- Rachel Herzog

Block on waste bans advances to Senate

House lawmakers voted along mostly partisan lines Wednesday to prohibit municipal ordinances aimed at reducing plastic waste through the regulation of bags, containers and packaging.

State Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, said such ordinances can create a web of local regulations that increase costs on local businesses, especially those that operate in different areas of the state.

Ray said his bill, House Bill 1704, has the support of the National Federation of Independent Businesses and the Arkansas Grocers and Retail Merchants Association. The bill was opposed by the Municipal League, he said.

The House voted 69-15 to send the bill to the Senate, with most Republicans voting in support of the measure.

-- John Moritz

Tax extension bills approved in House

House lawmakers voted Wednesday to extend the state's income tax filing deadline until May 17, mirroring an extension of the federal filing deadline.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson had previously extended the state's tax filing deadline by executive order, but Rep. Joe Jett, R-Success, said lawmakers should codify the extension to avoid confusion.

The House voted 96-0 for Jett's bill, Senate Bill 593, which now heads to the governor.

The House also passed Senate Bill 420, which will allow Arkansans to seek an extension until one month after the later deadline.

-- John Moritz

Scholarship funding heads to governor

The Arkansas House sent to the governor a bill to prioritize the distribution of proceeds for lottery-financed scholarships on Wednesday.

Senate Bill 584 by Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana would use about $100 million, which is what's expected to be in the trust funds for the Academic Challenge and Workforce Challenge Scholarships on June 30 to pay for scholarships in the 2020-21 school year.

The proposal would use net proceeds and $20 million in general revenue collected in fiscal 2022, which starts July 1, to pay for scholarships in the 2022-23 school year, so the state would bank the money for those scholarships in advance.

If the state doesn't have enough money to fund all the scholarships, Academic Challenge scholarships would be funded first and other lottery-financed scholarships would be funded pro-rata.

The state could borrow from a $20 million reserve fund for scholarships, with the Legislative Council's approval.

The House's vote was 85-6, with five lawmakers voting present. The measure had unanimous support in the Senate.

-- Rachel Herzog

Panel OKs licenses for legal workers

The Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor voted Wednesday to advance legislation allowing immigrants with federal work permits to receive occupational and professional licenses in Arkansas.

House Bill 1735, by state Rep. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, follows efforts in recent sessions to allow immigrants protected by the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program to receive nursing and teaching licenses.

Javier Luna, a senior at Little Rock's Central High School who said he had plans to study civil engineering at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, spoke in favor of the bill Wednesday. Luna said he was born in Mexico City, but moved to Arkansas when he was 4.

"I want to go to college and study civil engineering so that I can give back to the community that has given so much to me," Luna said. "I want to help Arkansas grow as a place."

The committee voted unanimously in favor of HB1735, sending the bill to the Senate floor.

-- John Moritz