In the midst of the covid-19 pandemic, Arkansas' 93rd General Assembly begins at noon Monday and is expected to tackle a variety of measures in its regular session, including a proposed ban on most abortions and changes to the state's version of Medicaid expansion that provides health care coverage for low-income Arkansans.
The Republican-dominated Legislature also will consider enacting a "stand-your-ground" self-defense bill; increased penalties for hate crimes; and giving lawmakers more authority in emergencies declared by the governor.
The legislative agenda includes teacher pay raises; expanding school choice; redrawing the boundaries of the state's four congressional districts; and whether to refer a proposed constitutional amendment to overhaul tort laws to voters in the 2022 general election.
Legislators will approve the next fiscal year's general-revenue budget and decide how much money to give public schools, human services, colleges and universities and other programs.
The work will be done under conditions intended to stem the spread of the coronavirus, which first arrived in 2020.
The House of Representatives will have 78 Republicans and 22 Democrats and the Senate will have 28 Republicans and seven Democrats, as the GOP increased its ranks by two seats each in the House and Senate from two years ago.
"I think there will be probably fewer bills pursued just because of the challenge of the legislative process during the pandemic, but the process itself will be more cumbersome, so I think that balances out," Gov. Asa Hutchinson said.
"I think [this year's regular session] will be about median length, but there is a lot of unpredictability," the Republican governor said.
The regular session in 2019 lasted 88 days to fall in the middle of the range of lengths for other recent sessions: 96 days in 2011, 101 days in 2013, 82 days in 2015 and 86 days in 2017. Regular sessions start in January of odd-numbered years.
Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, asked to estimate the session's length, said, ""I truly do not know because we are literally in unprecedented times with covid."
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said, "Hopefully we don't have to recess because of the virus, but we also understand that that may be one of the contingencies that we may have to utilize."
Senate Democratic leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis said there is a "moderate core" of Republicans in the Senate and an "emerging ultraconservative core" and how they work together will help determine the length of the session.
Hutchinson said his priorities include tackling health care issues during the pandemic, hate-crimes legislation, requiring computer science credit for high school graduation, boosting teacher pay and proposals from his law enforcement task force.
Addressing the issues of the state's health care system in the pandemic will be an underlying theme of the session.
"Making sure that we are prepared to get everyone vaccinated, that we have the resources that we need to get that done, as well as look to the future and make sure we have infrastructure for our health care system and to capitalize on some of the innovation that has been required ... during this pandemic," he said of his agenda.
In 2019, the Legislature enacted 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 ending at $36,000 in 2022-23.
"This year we are still working through the right mechanism to do that [increase teacher pay] and how we provide the right level of support for our districts," he said. "We are still considering ... do you raise the minimum teacher salary again or do you incentivize the districts to raise the median salary level, so we are still working with the General Assembly and fine-tuning our approach to it. But the key point is that there is a growing consensus that we do need to increase teacher pay and that will be part of the package."
Hutchinson said he also will propose some sentencing reform in the form of "an anti-stacking bill."
"Right now, you can be engaged in a drug purchase, a drug offense, and they are able to stack multiple offenses on one transaction together from drug paraphernalia, and the result is in some instances a nonviolent drug offense getting 70 to 80 years or more, so we are working with the prosecutors and trying to have reform of that, so that there are more restrictions on that stacking capability," he said.
NEXT YEAR'S BUDGET
Hutchinson has proposed a $5.84 billion general-revenue budget for fiscal 2022, a $161 million increase over the current budget. Fiscal 2022 begins July 1.
Most of the increase would go to human services, public schools and colleges and universities.
The governor proposed devoting $100 million of the state's $240 million surplus, collected before fiscal 2021, to the state's long-term reserve fund, which he has described as a saving account.
The fund's balance is now $209.9 million, after a $25 million transfer from the property tax relief fund on Dec. 31, according to Scott Hardin, a spokesman for the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.
In November, the governor proposed the General Assembly approve $50 million a year in income tax cuts for moderate- and low-income Arkansans and reduce the top rate from 5.9% to 4.9% for new residents for five years. He also would like to reduce, over five years, the top rate for everybody else to 4.9%.
The top individual tax rate is now 5.9% as of Jan. 1. It was cut under Act 182 of 2019, which previously cut the top rate from 6.9% to 6.6% on Jan. 1, 2020.
Cutting the top rate to 4.9% is projected by state officials to reduce general revenue by $275.6 million a year when fully implemented.
Hutchinson also has proposed cutting the sales tax from 6.5% to 3.5% on used vehicles priced between $4,000 and $10,000. Used vehicles priced at less than $4,000 are tax exempt.
"I think we are going to have to get there, take a look at where we stand from a revenue and spending perspective, a fiscal perspective, particularly in these types of somewhat volatile times as they are from an economic standpoint, and then make some determinations of what we feel like is an appropriate path forward," said Shepherd.
Two bills have been filed to create an earned income tax credit for low- and moderate-income Arkansans -- one that also would increase tobacco and vaping taxes and another without those tax increases.
A bill also has been filed to eliminate the low-income tax table.
"I always like looking at lowering the rate, but I think the priority should be the low- and minimum-income" Arkansans in this year's session, Hutchinson said.
"If you are going to lower the rate, you probably are going to need a trigger to look down the road. We are at 5.9%. I do think we need to have a trigger for lowering it even more, but how do we do that? Let's see how the different proposals shape up."
Lawmakers will consider changing the state's version of Medicaid expansion, with the state planning to seek a new waiver from the federal government for the program because the current waiver expires at the end of this year. The program provides health care coverage for about 300,000 low-income Arkansans.
The Legislature also will consider authorizing spending authority for the program for the next fiscal year, which requires a third-fourths vote in the House and Senate. That requires 27 votes in the 35-member state Senate and 75 votes in the 100-member House of Representatives.
"We are working very hard with the legislators to shape what our waiver request will look like," Hutchinson said.
"This will be part of our health care package because we are looking at changing our waiver, so that we can do more to help on maternal health issues, which has been a challenge for our state, as well as helping utilize the critical access to hospitals more in our rural areas to deliver better healthy outcomes and accountability for those that are on the Medicaid program," he said.
Hutchinson said state Department of Human Services officials are working on the waiver request and accompanying legislation.
The U.S. Supreme Court is considering an appeal of a lower court's ruling striking down Arkansas' work requirement for its Medicaid program.
"We believe that we want to move people from dependence into independence and a part of that is making sure they are adequately trained for work," Hutchinson said.
"Regardless of what the Supreme Court says on the work requirement, and whether it is authorized or not, we have to get our waiver by the Biden administration, so we want to shape this in a way that we can get the waiver," he said. Democratic former Vice President Joe Biden is the president-elect and takes office Jan. 20.
"This time I really feel like that [the Department of Human Services] has done a better job of talking to legislators, trying to tell them the options" to change the Medicaid program, Hickey said. "I think that's going to go a long way for us with helping whatever we need to do."
Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, has filed Senate Bill 6 that would ban abortions except to save the life of the mother or to remove an ectopic pregnancy.
He said he believes it's time to give the U.S. Supreme Court another chance to overturn its landmark Roe v. Wade decision and he doesn't expect to have any problems getting the bill through the House and the Senate.
In the past, Hutchinson has stated that he opposes abortion except to save the life of the mother or in cases of rape or incest.
Hutchinson, who is an attorney, said he wants to put "a little more thought and analysis to, is this the best challenge or are there better challenges?"
"We don't want to inadvertently bring a case to the Supreme Court that sets you back to your pro-life movement and the pro-life movement has been cautious in that way as well, so I want to listen to some of the constitutional scholars that are on the pro-life side before I actually make a decision," he said. "But I am fully pro-life. I've always signed our pro-life bills that come through the Legislature, but I have not made a clear statement on that [bill] yet."
STAND YOUR GROUND
The "stand-your-ground" self-defense bill is Senate Bill 24, sponsored by Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville.
The legislation proposes to eliminate language from criminal codes requiring a person to retreat, if possible, before using deadly force in self-defense. In 2019, Ballinger sponsored similar legislation, and it failed to clear the Senate Judiciary Committee.
Ballinger said he expects this year's version to clear the committee and the Senate.
"We need every Republican vote on the House Judiciary Committee, but I think we'll get that," he said.
The House Judiciary Committee has 11 Republicans and nine Democrats.
Shepherd said he has been studying the bill.
"I think there is probably a good chance that it passes [the Legislature]," he said. "But with anything around the Legislature, you never know until the votes are taken."
Hutchinson said the bill has been adjusted from a 2019 bill that he expressed reservations about.
"You really have to read it and study it and then talk to prosecutors and law enforcement and try to figure out how this works in real life, and so I am going through that right now," the governor said. "I want to hear from more people before I take a position on it and also see how it develops."
Hutchinson plans to push for passage of legislation that would create a sentence enhancement for hate crimes. Arkansas, South Carolina and Wyoming are the only three states without such a law.
Senate Bill 3 by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, would create a sentence enhancement for offenses committed because of a victim's race, color, religion, ethnicity, ancestry, national origin, homelessness, gender identity, sexual orientation, sex, disability or service in the U.S. armed forces. House Bill 1020 by Rep. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, is the same legislation.
"I believe that the bill as written has a very steep uphill battle within the Senate," Hickey said. "We have some of our business community ... [that] act like they may want some version of the hate-crime bill.
"I know that there is a large constituency of our grassroots out there that seem like they may not," Hickey said. "It could possibly be that just maybe there needs be a better understanding of it."
Shepherd said there is a wide range of views in the Legislature on the legislation.
Hutchinson said, "It looks like that a few on the Judiciary Committee have expressed opposition to any type of hate-crimes legislation, and that's really the motivation they got on the Senate Judiciary Committee [for].
"So obviously that's being stacked and that's a challenge, but this is about leadership," he said. "It is about making your case and for those that think well maybe it is better off just to pull it back, I think that is very unwise. I think that is not how to accomplish great things and progress for the state of Arkansas."
"I am always hopeful that people of reason will look at it and understand how important this is for the people of Arkansas," Hutchinson said.
Among its priority issues for the 2021 session, the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce supports adoption of hate-crime legislation.
The Legislature will consider referring to voters for the 2022 general election up to three constitutional amendments.
"I would like to see them do tort reform," Hutchinson said.
He said he would like the Legislature to take the approach of proposing a constitutional amendment that would authorize the General Assembly to enact limitations on damages without specifying what would the limitations would be.
Randy Zook, president and chief executive officer for the Chamber, said Thursday, "We are in exploratory discussions with people interested in this issue. Nothing beyond that at this point."