Week in Review: Arkansas’ 91st General Assembly Recesses
After gaining 12 seats in the Legislature in the 2016 election and its aftermath, Republicans in Arkansas controlled 26 of 35 Senate seats and 77 of 100 House seats.
During a session that focused primarily on the rules and regulations surrounding medical marijuana, Republican Governor Asa Hutchinson praised legislators for what he called one of the most successful pro-jobs and pro-growth agendas in recent memory.
Among the governor’s proudest accomplishments was signing into law his $50 million tax cut, which will impact the roughly 660,000 Arkansans earning fewer than $21,000 annually when it takes effect in 2019.
Other accomplishments Hutchinson singled out included a reduction to the state’s soda tax, an accelerator program, a tax exemption for veterans on retirement income and a reduction of the sales tax and replacement parts in the manufacturing sector.
Hutchinson also signed a law separating the holidays honoring civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King and Confederate General Robert E. Lee. The bill designates the third Monday in January as Dr. Martin Luther King Day and the second Saturday in October as Robert E. Lee Day. Hutchinson said the combined holiday made some Arkansans feel that they had to “make a choice.”
The Arkansas Legislature also voted to appropriate funds to keep Arkansas’ hybrid Medicaid expansion program, known as Arkansas Works. Currently, more than 300,000 Arkansans are enrolled in the program, which uses Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents.
The state is expected to pay $109 million of the $1.8 billion total cost of the expansion program in the coming year. However, Medicaid in Arkansas is likely to see changes in the near future. In March, Hutchinson asked the Trump Administration for approval to lower the eligibility cap for Arkansas Works, which would reduce the number of beneficiaries by roughly 60,000 people, as well as adding a work requirement for recipients. The changes, which the Legislature will have to approve, will likely be considered in a May special session.
Lawmakers also approved the Revenue Stabilization Act, which sets funding priorities based on expected revenue for the fiscal year that begins July 1. The Revenue Stabilization Act outlines the $5.4 billion budget proposed for the coming year. The proposal calls for increasing state funding by $163 million.
The Legislature also referred two constitutional amendments to Arkansas voters. SJR8, which focuses on tort reform, places limits on punitive and non-economic damages, limits contingency fees and allows the Legislature to approve rules and procedures for state courts.
The Legislature also passed HJR1016, which would require voters to present a valid photo identification when casting a ballot. Arkansans will vote on both measures in November 2018.
The session was not without its controversies.
The Senate approved a resolution calling for a federal constitutional convention to define marriage as between one man and one woman. The resolution also called for a constitutional amendment effectively declaring that life began at conception.
Hutchinson was pleased that a controversial “North Carolina-type bathroom bill,” which was proposed during the session, failed. “This is not a problem in Arkansas,” Hutchinson said. “It does not cry out for a solution.”
Hutchinson did sign into a law a bill allowing guns on public college campuses, though the bill exempts college sporting events.
Though legislation surrounding long-term funding for the state’s highways and an internet sales tax failed this time around, Hutchinson expects debate to continue in future sessions.
The Legislature will recess until May, when the governor is expected to call a special session over Arkansas’ Medicaid expansion plan.
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