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STATE CAPITOL BRIEFS: Extended session favored by House | Abortion legislation heads to governor | House backs bill on hit-and-run penalty

by Arkansas Democrat-Gazette | March 23, 2021 at 9:07 a.m.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.

Extended session favored by House

House lawmakers voted Monday to extend the regular session until April 30, when they plan to take an extended break before returning later this year to tackle congressional redistricting.

The proposed extension was filed Friday in the form of House Concurrent Resolution 1015 by House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana.

Lawmakers were to wrap up their work by April 9, but Shepherd said more time was needed after snow delayed the session for several days last month.

During the summer recess, bills passed in the spring will be allowed to go into effect. Lawmakers will meet later this year to redraw congressional district maps, a duty that has been put on hold by the delayed release of U.S. census data.

“We’re really dependent on what the Census Bureau does and when they make their numbers available,” Shepherd said.

The resolution was adopted 92-1 and now goes to the Senate.

— John Moritz

Abortion legislation heads to governor

The House on Monday sent legislation to the governor that would require an abortion doctor to perform an ultrasound and show the image to the patient before performing the procedure.

Senate Bill 85, by Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, is the latest anti-abortion measure to be advanced by legislators this session. Earlier this year, Hutchinson signed legislation banning all abortions except those to save the life or health of the mother.

Under current state law, if physicians use ultrasound equipment while performing abortions, then they must inform the patients that they have the right to view the ultrasound images. Under SB85, to require the ultrasound, the patient would have the option to look away.

The House voted 74-14 to send the bill to Hutchinson’s desk.

— John Moritz

House backs bill on hit-and-run penalty

Legislation that would increase the penalty on drivers who flee the scene of a life-threatening accident passed in the House on Monday on a bipartisan vote.

House Bill 1505 would increase the hit-and-run penalty on accidents that cause serious physical injury or death to a Class B felony, punishable by up to 20 years in prison. The current penalty is up to six years in prison.

Rep. Charlene Fite, R-Van Buren, and Rep. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, sponsored HB1505.

McCullough, whose brother was killed in a hit-and-run accident several years ago, said the current law creates a loophole in which drunken drivers who kill people in wrecks are better off fleeing to avoid the stiff penalties. She said HB1505 would eliminate that loophole.

The bill passed in the House by a vote of 92-1. It now heads to the Senate.

— John Moritz

Senate OKs jail term for fleeing drivers

The Senate on Monday approved a bill that would set a minimum 30-day jail sentence for a person convicted of fleeing by driving a vehicle above the speed limit.

The Senate voted 35-0 to approve Senate Bill 307 by Sen. Jim Hendren, an independent from Sulphur Springs. The bill now goes to the House.

State law requires a person convicted of fleeing by means of any vehicle or conveyance, a Class A misdemeanor, to serve a minimum of two days in jail.

— Michael R. Wickline

Teaching-license measure advances

A bill to allow college professors and associate professors to receive teaching licenses from the Arkansas Department of Education was advanced by the House on Monday.

“As you all know, there’s a shortage of certified teachers in the Delta; there’s a shortage of certified teachers right here in the city of Little Rock,” said Rep. Fred Allen, D-Little Rock.

Allen is the lead sponsor of House Bill 1678, which has the support of the Department of Education and the Arkansas Department of Higher Education, he said.

The bill will now head to the Senate after the 85-7 vote.

— Rachel Herzog

Eateries’ delivery of alcohol approved

The House passed legislation Monday that would allow restaurants to deliver beer, wine and mixed drinks to customers along with their food.

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

The measure only applies 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 House passed the bill by a vote of 64-11, with 14 members voting present. The bill now goes back to the Senate for members to concur on amendments.

— John Moritz

Private-club permit at parks rejected

The Senate on Monday rejected a bill that would establish a private club permit for state park restaurants.

In a 20-8 vote, lawmakers defeated Senate Bill 473 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View. The Senate later expunged that vote to clear the way for another vote on the bill.

Irvin said the bill is aimed at streamlining the process for private club permits at state parks.

Under SB473, the permit application would require approval from the governing body of the county where the park operates and from the secretary of the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism. The permit would come from the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division.

Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, said he worried about state parks competing with local businesses and the potential expansion of alcohol use in dry counties. Irvin responded that state parks help local businesses through tourism.

— Michael R. Wickline

Ban on ‘stacking’ drug offenses OK’d

The Senate on Monday passed legislation that would prohibit prosecutors from “stacking” offenses related to the possession of drug paraphernalia.

House Bill 1604, by state Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, would prohibit prosecutors from filing multiple charges for possession of drug paraphernalia — such as plastic bags, pipes and needles — for each item found in someone’s possession.

The process, commonly known as stacking, can lead to drug offenders facing decades in prison after a single arrest.

The Senate voted 33-1 for the bill, sending it to the governor.

— Michael R. Wickline

Arts, tech body gets legislators’ support

The Senate on Monday approved a bill that would create an 18-member Arkansas Legislative Arts and Technology Boot Camp.

Lawmakers voted 33-1 to approve Senate Bill 531 by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, sending the measure to the House for further action.

The boot camp would be required to issue a final written report by Aug. 31, 2022, that includes an inventory of statewide arts and cultural assets; an assessment of the funding needed to create, update and maintain a statewide database with such an inventory for each of the Arkansas Art Council’s eight districts; and a plan for identifying and leveraging current and future assets in the areas of arts and technology.

— Michael R. Wickline

School-patriotism bills backed by AG

Attorney General Leslie Rutledge, who is seeking the Republican nomination for governor in 2022, is backing two bills that seek to promote patriotism in Arkansas schools, she announced Monday.

One would mandate that schools observe a moment of silence after the Pledge of Allegiance, while another would require schools to broadcast the national anthem at the start of school-sanctioned sporting events as well as at least once a week during school hours, according to the draft legislation.

The bills had not been filed as of Monday evening.

— Rachel Herzog

Lawmakers remove barriers in chamber

Lawmakers removed at least two plexiglass barriers in the House on Monday, despite no law or rule change allowing them to do so.

The barriers surrounding each seat and desk in the chamber were among the safety measures put in place because of the covid-19 pandemic.

House spokeswoman Cecillea Pond-Mayo said there wasn’t any rule change and that the barriers would be put back up by staff members.

The barriers separating Rep. Rick Beck, R-Center Ridge, from Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, and Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, were seen being removed as lawmakers prepared to convene Monday.

Beck said there wasn’t any coordinated effort or “rebellion” among legislators to take down the barriers, but that some were frustrated with how the barriers can get in the way of legislators talking and working together.

House Bill 1621 by Rep. Justin Gonzales, R-Okolona, would prohibit the installation of barriers in legislative chambers, but that measure has not yet been heard on the House floor.

— Rachel Herzog

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