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STATE CAPITOL BRIEFS: Benton legislator says he has virus | Tax cut bills put at end of session | Car-wash fees bill stance questioned

by Michael R. Wickline | January 21, 2021 at 3:22 a.m.
Arkansas State Police vehicles line the sidewalk on the south end of the state Capitol Monday Jan. 11, 2021 in Little Rock on the first day of the legislative session. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staton Breidenthal)

Benton legislator says he has virus

Rep. Lanny Fite, R-Benton, on Wednesday became the third state lawmaker to test positive for covid-19 since the regular session started Jan. 11.

On Wednesday morning, Fite informed House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, about his positive test, House spokeswoman Cecillea Pond-Mayo said.

Fite said he learned Wednesday morning that he tested positive for the coronavirus Tuesday after testing negative Friday. He said he sits next to Rep. Milton Nicks, D-Marion, in the House chamber, and he suspects he was exposed to the virus by Nicks.

Nicks informed Shepherd on Jan. 13 that he tested positive for the coronavirus.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Fite said he has been in quarantine since Nicks tested positive for covid-19

"I am not having any symptoms right now," he said. "I feel fine."

Nicks could not be reached for comment by telephone Wednesday.

Fite, 70, is the 21st state lawmaker to publicly acknowledge that they have tested positive for covid-19 in the past four months. Twenty-five state lawmakers have said they tested positive for covid-19 since the pandemic arrived in Arkansas in March. The Legislature has 135 members.

-- Michael R. Wickline

Tax cut bills put at end of session

The Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee won't consider taking action on tax cut bills until the end of this year's regular session, the committee Chairman Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, said Wednesday.

"This is the most fair way to hear [tax cut bills], not take a vote on them and then at the end of the session we'll bring them back in -- the ones that we think we can afford and then we'll bring them back in and pass them out," Sample said after the committee's meeting. "That way we can balance the budget a lot better by doing that than the other way.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at arkansasonline.com/legislature]

"You can't start out, like Sen. [Larry] Teague said, by giving everything up and then come to the end of the session, and you've got some really good bills that you need the money to cover them and you've already spent it on a smaller items."

He added that the state's tax revenue collections can change overnight amid the covid-19 pandemic.

-- Michael R. Wickline

Car-wash fees bill stance questioned

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, on Wednesday questioned why the state Department of Finance and Administration has taken a neutral stance on Senate Bill 9 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, that would repeal a water usage fee paid by owners and operators of automatic car washes, car wash tunnels and self-service wash bays, effective Oct. 1.

The water usage fee was created by Act 822 of 2019 that, among other things, overhauled the taxation of car washes. The Finance Department estimated that SB9 would reduce state general revenue by $670,000 in fiscal 2022 starting July 1 and by $1 million in fiscal 2023, which begins July 1, 2022.

Paul Gehring, an assistant revenue commissioner for the Finance Department, told the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee that "in consultation with the governor's office, we are neutral on the bill" and not speaking for or against the bill.

Dismang, who is the Senate tax committee's vice chairman, questioned why the department is neutral on a bill that, he said, is projected to reduce state general revenue that isn't factored into Gov. Asa Hutchinson's proposed general revenue budget for fiscal 2022.

"Typically, I think in the past [the Finance Department] has always taken the position of being opposed to a bill that impacts general revenue because it impacts the governor's balanced budget proposal that he made back in November," he said.

Gerhing said the department recognized that it had administrative costs associated with the "unique" fee.

"We also recognize that there is administrative costs for businesses to comply with this requirement," he said. "For this specific circumstance with this bill, we did not see a strong motivation [for the Finance Department] to oppose, given that we have our resource costs with this specific fee."

Dismang, who is a co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, asked Gehring "to give me a list of the positions that would be eliminated if we eliminated this tax and the savings that would then be generated ... and how you came to your decision."

The committee took no action on the bill.

-- Michael R. Wickline

Step therapy bid favored by panel

The Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee on Wednesday endorsed a bill that would regulate so-called step therapy protocols.

The bill is Senate Bill 99 by committee Chairwoman Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers. According to the bill, health benefit plans are increasingly making use of step therapy protocols under which patients are required to try one or more prescription drugs before coverage is provided for a drug selected by the patient's health care provider.

In these cases, Bledsoe said a patient's health insurance company doesn't want to pay for a medicine prescribed by the patient's doctor, unless the patient tries another less-expensive medication that the company feels will work.

"Many times, his health condition is not improving and in fact time is being wasted in getting this person well," she said.

A patient can appeal this process, but it takes weeks and months to navigate the appeal process, she said.

"We are saying let's reform it," Bledsoe said. "We want the right medication at the right time for the right patient."

At least 25 states, including Louisiana and Oklahoma and Texas, have updated their laws to regulate step therapy protocols required by insurers and pharmacy benefit managers, she said. She said she plans to propose five amendments to the bill after it reaches the full Senate.

Michael Keck, representing the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network Arkansas, said there has been no fiscal impact on insurance companies' rates in several states that have enacted similar laws, no significant impact on the rates in four other states that enacted similar laws and an indeterminate impact on rates in four other states that enacted similar laws.

But Max Greenwood, representing Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield, said "I would respectfully disagree that this is reforming step therapy."

"I think what this bill does is it basically shifts the costs," she said. "In my opinion, the bill basically benefits pharmaceutical manufacturers at the cost of hardworking Arkansans. This is going to impact cost across the board."

In addition, there already is an appeals process for patients, but it doesn't take months to navigate that process, Greenwood said.

-- Michael R. Wickline

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