The Arkansas Senate on Monday voted to extend the regular session and provide for a recess of the General Assembly at the close of business on April 7 or at an earlier time agreed upon by the House and Senate.
The Senate voted 35-0 to approve House Concurrent Resolution 1007, by House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado. On Feb. 8, the House of Representatives voted 96-2 to approve HCR1007 with one representative not voting and one representative voting present.
Arkansas' 94th General Assembly convened Jan. 9.
Under the Arkansas Constitution, a regular session shall not exceed 60 calendar days, unless extended by a two-thirds vote of the 35-member Senate and 100-member House, and shall not exceed 75 calendar days, unless extended by a three-fourths vote of both chambers. The 60th day of the regular session will be March 9, and the 75th day of the regular session will be March 24.
Today is the 37th day of the regular session.
Asked whether it's realistic to expect the General Assembly to recess on April 7, given that neither of the sweeping educational and criminal justice overhaul bills and their details have been introduced yet, Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said in a interview, "I think it is very realistic."
"We have done a lot of work," he said. "We are through the drafting processes on the criminal justice and the education bill. I think by this time next week we are going to be full into it. I would hope that we are through the education and criminal justice [bills] before spring break."
The Senate and House have already approved a resolution that would provide a spring break recess from March 16 to March 29.
"I would be very disappointed if we don't see the education bill by next week," Hester said. "The reality is we have a bill that has been drafted and it has been through review. We just continue to modify it based on feedback from stakeholders and members, and the feedback is significant on all the areas, and so when we put something forward we want it to be right."
Sen. Breanne Davis, R-Russellville, who has been working on the education overhaul bill, said Monday that she hopes to introduce the bill in the next week, and she doesn't know whether the bill will be filed this week.
"We are meeting on that and we'll see if we get it out that quick," she said in an interview. She said the current plan is start the bill in the Senate.
Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced on Wednesday plans to increase the state's starting teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 a year and offer vouchers to every student as part of what she described as "the most far-reaching, bold and conservative education reforms anywhere in the entire country."
The voucher program, called education freedom accounts, would allow students to attend private or home schools and would be phased in over three years, the Republican governor said.
Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, who is working on the criminal justice overhaul legislation, said he expects some of the criminal justice bills to be filed by Friday.
"We are going to break some of them out," he said. "We are not going to put everything criminal justice-related in one bill. ... I think the big portions of the parole reform will be filed likely next week."
Gazaway said he will meet soon with Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, and others who are helping to draft the bills "to determine what we are going to put into one bill and what we want to split out.
"There are a number of proposals that concern everything from parole reform to human trafficking to fentanyl to Department of Correction policy as far as programming, and you have got speciality courts, substance abuse policy issues, [and] mental health policy issues that all concern the criminal justice system as well," he said.
Gazaway said there continue to be ongoing discussions about how many more prison beds are needed and the projected cost of the additional beds.
HCR1007 also would allow Hester and Shepherd to reconvene the General Assembly before noon May 1 to consider vetoes, complete work on proposed constitutional amendments, correct errors and oversights, and consider the need for further extension of the regular session, or adjourn the regular session at any time before noon May 1 if they determine it is not necessary to reconvene.
Information for this article was contributed by Neal Earley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.