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Tue April 23, 2013
With Arkansas Legislature Recessed, A Look At Highlights Of Session
The Arkansas Legislature recessed this year's legislative session Tuesday, wrapping up 100 days at the Capitol with Republicans in control for the first time in 138 years. Key developments from the session:
ABORTION: Legislators enacted some of the strictest abortion laws in the country by overriding two vetoes. One measure bans the procedure 20 weeks into a pregnancy, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, and a second bans abortions 12 weeks into a pregnancy, with the same exceptions as the 20-week ban plus one for highly lethal fetal disorders. Opponents have challenged the 12-week ban pending its summertime effective date; the 20-week ban took effect in February. Gov. Mike Beebe also signed a bill banning insurers participating in an exchange under the federal health care law from covering abortion.
AMENDMENTS: The Legislature referred to voters three proposed constitutional amendments for next year's ballot: One would ban most lobbyist gifts to elected officials, prohibit corporate campaign contributions, loosen the state's term limits and create an independent commission to set salaries for elected officials. Another would require at least 75 percent of signatures submitted by initiative campaigns to be verified as valid before they're given additional time to circulate petitions. A third would give lawmakers the authority to require legislative approval of state agency rules.
BUDGET: The $4.9 billion budget for the coming year closely mirrors the proposal that Beebe detailed late last year. The state's Medicaid program and public schools received the largest funding increases. The budget also includes money for state employees to receive a 2 percent cost-of-living raise. Lawmakers also set aside $140 million in one-time money to help shore up Medicaid and avoid any service cuts to the program.
EXECUTIONS: Legislators replaced a lethal injection law that the state Supreme Court had struck down last year on grounds it gave the Correction Department too much control of the process. The new law says Arkansas has to use a lethal dose of a barbiturate in executions, but lets administrators pick the drug. The Department of Correction said last week it plans to use phenobarbital, a barbiturate never used in a U.S. execution.
FREEDOM OF INFORMATION: The identities of 130,000 people permitted to carry concealed handguns are now exempt from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. Another exemption to take effect in 2015 requires police to redact the names and addresses of children under the age of 18 from vehicle
GUNS: Churches and other places of worship can decide whether to allow concealed handguns in their facilities. If they don't take any action, the firearms are still banned. Also, effective later this year, faculty and staff at Arkansas colleges and universities can carry concealed handguns on campus unless the college's governing board bans them.
HEALTH CARE: Arkansas will use federal Medicaid funds to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income residents under legislation Beebe signed into law Tuesday. The measure is being touted by Beebe and Republicans as an alternative to the Medicaid expansion called for under the federal health care law. The insurance would be purchase through the insurance exchange. The next step for setting up the program is winning approval from the federal government.
LOTTERY: College students entering school this fall who are eligible for the lottery funded scholarships awarded by the state will receive a lower amount than their predecessors. The overhaul of the lottery-funded program creates tiered scholarships that start at $2,000 for freshmen at four-year colleges. The award would then increase by $1,000 each year, maxing out at $5,000 for seniors. Students who are enrolled full-time at two-year colleges would be eligible for a $2,000 scholarship each year. The scholarship program currently pays $4,500 per year for university students and $2,250 for community college students. The changes won't affect students currently receiving lottery scholarships.
SCHOOLS: Arkansas schools will see a 2 percent increase in the per-student funding, from $6,267 to $6,393 next school year. The following year, the per-student amount would increase to $6,521 under the legislation. The increase is estimated to cost the state an additional $58 million a year. Lawmakers also rewrote the state law governing student transfers between districts that had been struck down by a federal judge last year. The new law allows students to change school districts as long as the transfer doesn't violate a court desegregation order. It also limits the number of transfers at 3 percent of a district's average daily membership. The law expires in July 2015.
STEEL MILL: Arkansas will provide $125 million in financing to Big River Steel to construct a $1.1 billion facility in Osceola. In exchange for financing and tax breaks, the company has promised to create at least 525 permanent jobs with an average annual wage of at least $75,000 - double the state's average. The steel mill project will be the first time Arkansas issues bonds to fund a "super-project" under a constitutional amendment voters approved in 2004.
TAX CUTS: Arkansas' taxes on income, capital gains, manufacturers and veterans will drop over the next few years under a package of bills that will eventually cost the state more than $140 million a year. The measures will cost the state $10.7 million in the coming fiscal year. The largest of the cuts is legislation that will phase in a 0.1 percent reduction in each income tax bracket over the next three years. Lawmakers also approved Beebe's proposal to cut the state's sales tax on groceries, but only if the state's bond obligations or desegregation settlement payments to Little Rock-area schools decrease by $35 million over a six-month period.
VOTER ID: Voters will be required to show photo identification at the polls under a new requirement that's set to take effect next year at the earliest. The voter ID restriction was enacted after lawmakers overrode Beebe's veto of the legislation. The law requires the state to provide free photo IDs to voters who don't have one, at an estimated cost of $300,000. It won't take effect until there is funding for the IDs or until January 2014, whichever occurs last. Opponents of the new restriction say they plan to challenge it in federal court.
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