Local & Regional News
8:38 pm
Mon March 11, 2013

Capitol Access: Shell Bills, Election Daze, and Prison Health Care

Last Day to File Bills

This is my first article with KUAR and fortune has it that it’s one of the longest days of the year over at the State Capitol. 

It’s the last day to file bills and over 650 have been filed and uploaded to the State’s website as of 7:50 p.m. But hundreds of these bills contain little more than a title and are known as shell bills. These shell bills are essentially devoid of content and specifics but serve to give legislators an extension, or circumvention, around the established deadline. In the days to come, as bill text is filled in, the boundaries and intent of this year’s legislature will be fixed.

Election Daze

Efforts in both chambers aimed at reducing the number of special elections failed by narrow margins. Representative Allen Kerr, hailing from West Little Rock, sponsored HB 1357, which sought to consolidate all elections with the exceptions of school board and millage re-certifications.

Correspondence with Kerr elicited this argument in favor of the bill,

“All of the arguments that the opponents of voter I.D. have made are the exact reasons that that group should be in favor of HB1357. This bill re-enfranchises voters. By having all issues on the ballot at one time they will know when election day is, just as everyone knows that there is a Memorial Day and a Labor Day holiday each year. Only this will create a spring voting day and a fall voting day, instead of having a voting day every other month for one issue or another. No longer will tax increases be approved by a very small group of voters just because the sponsors were able to time the election when it was inconvenient for people to vote.”

The vote was largely split on partisan lines, with Democrats in a rarely united opposition.

This voting pattern was also true in the Senate for SB 587. Republican Sponsor Eddie Joe Williams focused exclusively on moving school board elections to general election dates. Only one Republican voted against the bill while zero Democrats voted for the bill.

Although the bill failed, it did garner a plurality of 17 votes. Could Democrats be concerned that expanding likely voter turnout could be damaging amidst a new tide of Republican power? No Democrats took the floor to articulate their opposition.

Prison Health Care: The Public and Private Approach

In today’s floor session, both the House and the Senate tackled the issue of prison health care.

House Republican Michael Neal led the push for HB 1351’s passing today. The bill expands the reach of Medicaid in the prison system by authorizing the Department of Corrections to enroll inmates who have refused to fill out necessary paperwork. Previously, the Department of Corrections has assumed the costs. Representative Neal notes, “that the state spent 66 million dollars on healthcare for inmates last year in Arkansas.”

In the Senate, SB 803 sponsored by Bobby Pierce (D), sought to expand the private healthcare system in the prison system. SB 803 creates a co-pay system for inmate-initiated health requests.

Democrat Stephanie Flowers, the bill’s lone opponent, voiced concerns the bill could hinder an inmate’s health options and access.

On the floor Senator Pierce seemed to agree but framed it as a positive effect. Pierce, a Senator representing the central office of the Department of Corrections, suggested that the co-pay requirement was indeed “for slowing down prisoners coming in.”