Arkansas lawmakers face growing to-do list for '17 session
Little Rock, Ark. (AP) — During back-to-back legislative sessions this spring, Arkansas lawmakers managed to save the state's hybrid Medicaid expansion, approve a $5.3 billion budget for the coming year and find $50 million for the state's highway needs. That's no small feat, but it pales in comparison to the to-do list they face when they return to the Capitol in several months.
The upcoming presidential election, not to mention a handful of legislative contests on the ballot this fall, and several other factors could upend the Legislature's agenda in the coming months. But it's already clear lawmakers and Gov. Asa Hutchinson have a full plate for the 2017 session.
Here is a look at the issues that are already likely to be on the agenda when the Legislature returns in January:
— MEDICAID: Hutchinson and legislative leaders relied on an unusual parliamentary tactic — convincing lawmakers to pass a measure ending the state's hybrid Medicaid expansion on the promise it would be vetoed — to save a program that's providing coverage to more than 250,000 Arkansans. The strategy shows just how much of a challenge keeping the program will be again next year. A lot could change depending on results in the presidential election, with Republicans vowing to repeal the law that enabled the expanded coverage. There will also likely be a renewed debate over Hutchinson's proposal to shift some Medicaid services to managed care, a plan he dropped this year after facing resistance from members of both parties.
— TAX CUTS: Hutchinson's $102 million income tax cut approved last year was touted as part of an effort to gradually reduce rates across the board for Arkansans. The governor hasn't said how much of a reduction he'll seek next year, but he'll likely face resistance from Democrats worried that other parts of the budget are suffering from the revenue loss. He'll also have to contend with fellow Republicans who will push for tax cuts elsewhere.
— LGBT RIGHTS: The debate over rights for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in Arkansas didn't end with the religious objections law that the Legislature revised following widespread complaints it was discriminatory. Hutchinson has predicted transgender student access to bathrooms and locker rooms will be an issue during the session following an Obama administration directive to public schools. But the governor hasn't said what type of legislation he'd support in response, and whether he'd back something similar to a North Carolina law that's the subject of boycotts and a Justice Department lawsuit.
—ROBERT E. LEE: Hutchinson has already said his agenda will include another attempt to end Arkansas' practice of honoring Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee and civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day. Hutchinson has said King should have the day to himself, though past efforts to remove Lee failed repeatedly before a House panel last year.
— JUDICIAL ELECTIONS: An attempt to end the popular election of Supreme Court justices seemed likely even before conservative groups overwhelmed the state with television advertising and mailers in a pair of high court races this year. Now it's almost a certainty that lawmakers will consider whether to refer to voters a measure that would have justices appointed by the governor. A task force for the Arkansas Bar Association has backed the idea of merit selection, and Hutchinson also supports the idea. The proposal is likely to face opposition from some sitting justices and others who say voters should have a say in who serves on the state's highest court.
—HIGHWAYS: The plan lawmakers approved last month to tap into Arkansas' surplus, investment returns and other funds for the state's highways will provide some immediate relief for road needs. But several legislators from both parties say there needs to be a longer term funding stream for the state's roads. The challenge is that few of the options on the table lend themselves easily to consensus. Efforts to raise taxes face resistance from Republicans who control both chambers of the Legislature, and Democrats are just as likely to fight diverting general revenue they say is needed for other state services.
—DEATH PENALTY: The biggest wrench in next year's session could come as soon as this week, with the state Supreme Court weighing whether to uphold an Arkansas law approved last year keeping details about the state's execution drugs secret. A ruling from the court striking down the law would effectively halt executions in the state, and would throw a renewed death penalty debate back in the Legislature's lap.
By Andrew DeMillo, Associated Press. Copyright 2016 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
The Gayly – June 4, 2016 @ 1:50 p.m.