The 90th General Assembly recessed Thursday, April 2. During the 81 day session, over 2,062 bills were filed, down slightly from the previous two regular sessions. The legislature will adjourn sine die on Friday, May 8.
For the first time since Reconstruction, Republicans controlled both the governor’s office and the Legislature. Although the early days of the session ran without much incident, the latter days were filled with a several challenges. Highlights from the session, including spending and tax cuts, health care, prisons, first veto, constitutional amendments, and RFRA are included below.
In the final week of the session, lawmakers passed a $5.18 billion general revenue budget, an increase of $133 million from the previous fiscal year. The budget featured increased funding for schools, Medicaid and prisons, with a 1 percent increase for most other state agencies. Funding for higher education remained the same. The Arkansas Science and Technology Authority and the Department of Health faced the two largest decreases. The budget also included a $4.3 million rainy day fund. While Gov. Hutchinson’s initial draft lacked funding for General Improvement Fund projects, the budget passed by legislations featured $20 million in GIF funding, with the House and Senate receiving $10 million each. The governor will have another $20 million for projects that he finds most important.
Lawmakers also approved two significant tax cuts, including Gov. Hutchinson’s $102 million middle-class income tax cut. The legislature also voted to reinstate a 50% exemption rate on capital gains set in the last legislative session.
Lawmakers swiftly addressed the future of Arkansas’ private option, a marked change from previous sessions. In late January, Gov. Hutchinson released his plans for health care reform and signed the measure into law by mid-February. The legislation will end the private option by Dec. 31, 2016 and created the Arkansas Health Reform Legislative Task Force to present a report detailing the alternatives to the private option by the end of 2015.
The task force plans to hire a consulting group to assist with the report, which will be due by the chosen consultant Oct. 1. The task force plans to consider where the state’s Medicaid and private option are right now, where the task force wants them to be and actions necessary to get them there. The task force plans to meet at least once a month for the rest of the year to determine the fate and next steps of the program.
Gov. Hutchinson released his prison reform plan in February to overhaul the current criminal justice system. The $32 million plan to curb prison crowding called for prison bed expansion, re-entry programs and centers, alternative sentencing courts and more parole and probation officers.
The legislature passed Senate Bill 472 by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson as part of the $32 million plan to increase prison-bed space, expand parole services and reduce recidivism over two years.
The proposal includes a “pay for success” program to look for ways to reduce recidivism; working with non-profit groups and others to help with job training; having more funding for specialty courts like drug, mental health and veterans courts; as well as allowing police officers and Arkansas Department of Community Corrections officers to have the authority to do warrantless searches on probationers and parolees.
Gov. Hutchinson used his veto power for the first time during the final days of the session, citing constitutional concerns over a bill involved assigning property rights to people’s names, voices and signatures. The sponsor of the bill, Sen. Jon Woods, went to the Senate floor to seek to override the veto. The override attempt failed by a 12-14 vote.
Lawmakers filed a total of 41 proposed constitutional amendments this session. After considerable pushback from legislative leadership, the House and Senate approved three constitutional amendments for the November 2016 ballot:
• Sen. Eddie Joe Williams’ SJR3 would allow the governor to maintain his or her powers when he or she leaves the state. Currently, the lieutenant governor currently acts as governor when the governor exits the state.
• Rep. Jack Ladyman’s HJR1027 would increase the terms of county judges, sheriffs, and other county officials from two years to four.
• Sen. Jon Woods’ SJR16 would remove the cap on super project general obligation bonds issued under Amendment 82. Currently, the cap is set at 5% of the state budget. The amendment also gives the legislature the power to determine the size of incentives offered to employers, would allow cities and municipalities to provide economic development infrastructure and services, and would let cities and municipalities sell voter-approved bonds for infrastructure and incentives.
Religious Freedom Restoration Act
The final days of the legislative session were filled with intense debate over a bill widely criticized for what many said would result in discrimination against the LGBT community. Although the bill made its way through the legislative process and Gov. Hutchinson said he would sign the bill, a large grassroots effort coupled with public criticism from some of the state’s largest employers caused Gov. Hutchinson to reconsider his stance. On the penultimate day of the session, Gov. Hutchinson asked lawmakers to modify an already existing bill with amendments that mirrored the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act.