Things to watch in 2015 Arkansas legislative session
Little Rock, Ark. (AP) — With Republicans in control of both the Arkansas Legislature and the governor's office, the political landscape will be dramatically different when lawmakers convene at the Capitol for this year's legislative session.
The issues, however, will be familiar.
Members of the House and Senate convene Monday for the 90th General Assembly, and a day later Republican Asa Hutchinson will be sworn in as the state's 46th governor. Legislative leaders and Hutchinson are vowing to work quickly through a to-do list that includes health care, tax cuts and prison overcrowding.
Key issues to watch as the legislative session begins:
The biggest unknown hovering over the session is whether Arkansas' "private option" Medicaid expansion will survive. More than 213,000 people are enrolled in the 2-year-old program, in which the state uses federal funds to buy private health insurance.
The program needs the support of three-fourths of the House and Senate, but many new legislators made campaign promises to vote against it. The private option was crafted as an alternative to the Medicaid expansion envisioned under the federal health overhaul.
Hutchinson hasn't said whether he supports the private option, but promises a "major speech" on health care reform this month.
Hutchinson wants to cut income taxes for the middle class by $100 million a year, reducing the tax rate from 7 percent to 6 percent for people earning between $34,000 and $75,000 and from 6 percent to 5 percent for people earning between $20,400 and $33,999.
House Speaker Jeremy Gillam and Senate President Jonathan Dismang are sponsoring the plan and expect it to be approved early. Legislators are also floating other tax cuts, including exemptions for farmers and veterans.
Hutchinson says the state may have to delay some of the tax cuts lawmakers approved in 2013. Outgoing Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe has urged lawmakers to delay them, too, saying the state can't afford the reduction in revenue.
Arkansas lawmakers will be asked to address the placement of state inmates in local jails around the state. Correction officials say they need a $100 million prison to house 1,000 inmates to alleviate the overcrowding.
There is little support for a new prison and the proposed means to fund it — an increase in car tag fees. Gillam and Dismang have said they view a new prison as the last option, and would prefer to look at using existing buildings or contracting with private companies.
Two years after approving two of the strictest abortion bans in the nation, the Republican-led Legislature is poised to enact more measures. One proposal includes a ban on the use of telemedicine — practicing medicine via video conferencing — for a doctor to provide the abortion pill and another aims to cut off any public funding to Planned Parenthood.
The Legislature will open while uncertainty remains about the state's ban on gaymarriage. The state is appealing a federal judge's ruling striking down the state's gay-marriage ban. The state Supreme Court has yet to rule in a similar case.
Hutchinson wants legislators to give early consideration to his suggestion to let high school students earn math or science credits for computer science courses. He said offering the academic credit would encourage more students to take the classes.
Legislators may also pursue another attempt to drop Common Core academic standards, which are intended to help students prepare for college or a career. The standards were developed by a bipartisan group of governors and state school officials, but since being backed by the Obama administration some conservatives have complained they are a federal overreach into the classroom. Hutchinson has said he'll form a task force of teachers and parents to review the standards.
Other education items on the agenda include a request for $65 million for school facilities and an effort to ease the state's law requiring smaller school districts to consolidate.
By Andrew DeMillo, Associated Press. Copyright 2015 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
The Gayly – January 11, 2015 @ 12pm