On the eve of the beginning of the 2017 session of the Arkansas General Assembly, more than 100 bills had been prefiled. Several key issues are expected to dominate the session.
In 2015, legislators considered 2,063 bills and passed 1,289 of them into law. What could be the top three issues this year?
Among the most important, and one sure to grab a lot of attention, is medical marijuana. When voters approved the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Amendment in November, it marked only the beginning of the legislative and regulatory process that will govern how Arkansans use the plant. Now legislators must fill in the blanks.
According to Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, legislators are grappling with “about 135 issues, and that’s a real number” that must be clarified or modified through legislation.
Legislators can change much of the amendment with a two-thirds vote. One bill that seems likely to pass would give regulators in the Department of Health, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, and the newly formed Arkansas Medical Marijuana Commission another 60 days to pass rules; currently, it’s an extremely tight deadline of March 9. House said “extensive” legislation will be considered regarding how medical marijuana is treated on job sites. Under the amendment, employees cannot be discriminated against or penalized by employers for being medical marijuana patients. However, patients are not allowed to perform tasks under the influence of marijuana that would “constitute negligence or professional malpractice.”
Legislators will grapple with the amendment throughout the session. On the other hand, leaders hope another major issue, tax cuts, is settled quickly so budget decisions can be made. Two years after passing his signature $100 million tax cut in his first session, Gov. Asa Hutchinson has proposed two smaller ones for 2017 – a $50.5 million income tax cut for lower-income Arkansans, and a tax exemption for military retirees that would reduce state revenues by $13 million but would be offset by the ending of various exemptions, including one on manufactured homes. Other tax cuts could be proposed by legislators.
Hutchinson’s proposed tax cuts coincide with his $5.5 billion budget proposal and come at a time when state revenues have failed to meet projections so far this fiscal year. That’s a problem considering his highway plan passed in 2016 depends on the state running a surplus so it has money to match $200 million a year in federal funds. Meanwhile, 2017 will be the first year Arkansas must pay part of the cost – 5% – of what is now known as Arkansas Works, the program that uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for more than 300,000 lower-income individuals. And the state can’t spend less money on K-12 public education without risking a lawsuit.
Meanwhile, Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, and Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, hope to present budget options that reflect more of a zero-growth spending strategy in some areas. Files said he’s had conversations with many different senators, and many feel the same way.
“Our goal would be to work with the governor to try to make these changes and get them paid for, and I think that every conversation I’ve ever had with the governor, he has shared this mentality,” he said. “It’s not a competing plan, but it is an alternative, and I do think that people need options.”
The third major issue facing lawmakers? Let’s leave that one open.
Past sessions have been dominated by wrangling over what is now known as Arkansas Works. Its appropriations require three-fourths majorities, which means that nine senators or 26 House members can stop it. Attaining those supermajorities has often been a challenge for supporters.
Hutchinson hopes legislators leave it alone this year, but health care could take center stage if President-elect Donald Trump and congressional Republicans follow through on their promise to quickly repeal the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare, which makes Arkansas Works possible. On the other hand, health care could be in such a state of flux that legislators decide to keep the status quo until more is known.
A number of controversial social issues could grab a lot of attention. Hutchinson has said one of his priorities is separating the days honoring Dr. Martin Luther King and Gen. Robert E. Lee; currently, Arkansas is one of three states commemorating the civil rights leader and the Civil War general on the same day in January. An effort to separate the holidays failed in 2015.
Meanwhile, bills limiting abortion have already been prefiled for 2017. Transgender bathroom rights is another controversial issue. Hutchinson has said he doesn’t want Arkansas lawmakers to address the topic, but any one of 135 legislators could file such a bill, and a big fight could make the kind of national headlines neither the governor nor the state’s business leaders want. Already attracting attention is a bill by Rep. Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville, requiring colleges to allow staff to carry guns on campus.
Legislators were to go into session Jan 9. Sometime in April, they will recess. What will happen in between? If history is any guide, expect a lot of laws to be passed, covering a lot more than three issues.