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One of the penalties for refusing to participate in politics is that you end up being governed by your inferiors. -- Plato (429-347 BC)

Sunday, April 12, 2009

2009 Arkansas Legislative Session Ends

Dan Greenbergby Rep. Dan Greenberg: The 2009 legislative session ended yesterday. Governor Beebe came to the well of the House and told us at some length what an excellent job we did. Legislators thought this sentiment so accurate that we gave him repeated standing ovations. We followed this up with standing ovations for Rep. Bruce Maloch, Speaker of the House Robbie Wills, and even the Speaker’s wife. Because standing ovations do not really cost anything, legislators are often promiscuous with them.

Newspaper readers will be able to find several stories with Arkansas politicians complimenting one another on our many successes this session. I would like to try a different approach by listing a few areas where, this year, we were not entirely successful.

On taxes and budget issues, there was room for improvement. We continued our tradition of handing out tax breaks for special interests, combining this policy with a tax increase on smokers. My own view is that any tax provision that treats one group differently from another should be scrutinized carefully. I wrote a bill that would replace special-interest income tax provisions, which create lower income taxes for a few, with lower income tax rates for everyone, but thanks to Democrats the bill did not make it out of committee.

Shortly after we passed the tax increase on cigarettes to pay for our state’s new trauma system, the governor’s top tax bureaucrat told us that the revenue estimate he used didn’t take into account the new federal taxes on cigarettes. This means that the new yearly revenue will be about $14 million short the first year, and it probably means that even more new taxes will be needed in order to fund our newly created obligations. I think we all suspected that basing revenue on cigarette taxes would be unstable over the long run, but we didn’t think we’d see such a big shortfall so soon!

I also wrote a bill that would require any use of the Quick Action Closing Fund, which is controlled by the governor, to be accompanied by a written contract that sets out performance expectations. Under current law, the governor can give QACF money to private interests without any expectation that taxpayers will receive any return on it. I think this is troublesome, but the Democratic legislators on the economic development committee disagreed.

We also passed a new tax on milk that was designed to protect Arkansas dairy farmers. After most of the House and the Senate approved it, Governor Beebe announced that he couldn’t support it and that he would support helping farmers with money from a different program. If the governor comes across any other state government programs with surpluses that he can redirect, perhaps he will let legislators know sooner next time.

There was also room for improvement on issues of government secrecy. Lawmakers produced bills that would have put our state budget on the Internet, that would have made the state database of criminal records a matter of public record for government officials, and that would have made the rules for racial and other demographic preferences in college admissions public. In each case, state government bureaucrats representing the Democratic politicians in charge of the executive branch argued that making records accessible to the public would be dangerous, impossible, or impossibly expensive.

The House also succeeded in sending over a couple of very bad bills to the Senate, perhaps in the hope that the Senate would fix them. For instance, we passed a bill that was intended to stop underage drinking that was so badly drafted that it would have criminalized children’s Communion. Luckily, the Senate was able to get that one fixed.

I enjoyed serving in the legislature this session. But if the voters decide to send me there again, I hope I will be able to furnish the body with more common sense than it showed this session.
(The following is a news release written by House staff that summarizes what happened this week.)
LITTLE ROCK – Lawmakers have recessed the 87th General Assembly in Little Rock after 88 calendar days with the adoption of the state’s spending plan for the next fiscal year.

The passage of the Revenue Stabilization Act is always one of the last items approved. This year’s primary funding bill sets priorities for $4.4 billion in general revenue to be disbursed to state agencies and programs over the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. The recession dictated much of this year’s session, especially on revenues.

Lawmakers, with the Supreme Court’s edict to make sure public schools remain the state’s top priority, were able to slightly increase funding for K-12 education. Public schools are getting $1.9 billion for the next fiscal year; the Department of Human Services, $1 billion; colleges and universities, $587 million, and the Department of Correction, $287 million. Those needs generally get about 90 percent of state revenue.

Invited by legislative leaders of both chambers to address members, Gov. Mike Beebe in his remarks in the House praised all lawmakers’ work but singled out Speaker of the House Robbie Wills for his leadership and noted the heavy lifting done by the Joint Budget Committee and its co-chairman, Rep. Bruce Maloch of Magnolia. He lamented the difficult decisions faced by lawmakers, especially in bad economic times, when they have to say no to worthy projects.

Speaker Wills closed the session with a rundown of the session’s work. In addressing the House on opening day, Jan. 12, Wills recalled the wooden contraption called a “Do Nothing” and implored lawmakers to work hard and accomplish good things this session. They did, he said on closing day.

Lawmakers in the waning days also approved the General Improvement Fund, which consists of a $300 million surplus of leftover state agency money and earned interest from state accounts. More than one-third of the surplus, or about $100 million, will go to plug holes discovered in the budget late this session. The fund also includes $50 million in a quick-closing account used by the governor to bring jobs to the state. Another $9 million will be used to shore up the State Police retirement system fund.

The House and Senate will get about $30 million each for projects of statewide need, including those at colleges and universities. Funds also will be disbursed to rural fire departments, senior citizen centers, domestic-violence shelters and economic development projects. Those funds will be routed through state agencies on an application basis. The governor gets $65 million for other statewide projects at his discretion.

One of the first major acts approved by the 87th General Assembly was a reduction in the state sales tax on groceries from 3 percent to 2 percent. Arkansas is one of the few states that came into its legislative session this year with a surplus and opened it with a tax cut.

Formal adjournment is set for May 1. Unless there are vetoes to consider or corrections to be made, formal adjournment takes only a matter of minutes and a bang of the Speaker’s gavel will end the session.

Lawmakers also closed the session with a full slate of constitutional amendments for the November 2010 general election. Up to three can be referred, and lawmakers came up with three.

They are: a constitutional right to hunt, fish and trap; amending the state’s super-project economic development plan to issue general-obligation bonds to lure employers of any size, subject to the General Assembly’s approval; and a rewriting of the state’s credit and usury limits. Readers can expect much debate on all three of those issues in the coming months.

The House also gave final passage to Senate Bill 2 to repeal the state sales tax on mini-warehouses and self-storage services. The bill goes to the governor.

The House also gave final approval to amendments to a bill, by Rep. Randy Stewart of Kirby, to keep secret the names of Arkansans who have state licenses to carry concealed weapons. Those names – and specific home addresses -- have been public information since the concealed-carry law was approved in 1995 but seldom requested and never published (except for a brief time on a publication’s Internet home page). The original bill struggled in the Senate after being approved in the House by a large margin.

Both sides compromised. While the records will still be public information and subject to the state Freedom of Information Act, only the licensee’s name and zip code will be provided under the amended bill, which now goes to the governor.

The House also gave final approval to HB 1930, by Rep. Pam Adcock of Little Rock, requiring insurance companies to offer coverage for hearing aids of no less than $1,400 per ear every three years. That bill is now Act 1179.

The House also gave final approval to HB 1058, by Rep. Dawn Creekmore of East End, to remove the statute of limitations for rape if DNA evidence is found and collected at the scene of the crime. The bill goes to the governor.

The Senate, meanwhile, gave final approval to HB 1649, by Rep. Ray Kidd of Jonesboro, and HB 1830, by Rep. Butch Wilkins of Bono. Called the Private Protection Act, HB 1649 lowers the threshold for felony charges to be filed against someone who steals property in an area declared to be in a state of emergency. Felony charges generally apply to thefts of property valued at $2,500 and up, but that value would drop to $500 for thefts in the disaster area. The bill goes to the governor.

HB 1830 requires a person convicted of fleeing to serve at least two days in jail and for his or her driver’s license to be suspended for at least six months. It also goes to the governor.
I hope you enjoy the coming week -- and especially the part where you pay your taxes -- more than I will!
Dan Greenberg is an Attorney-at-Law and State Representative (District 31), Arkansas General Assembly. Although he directly represents northern Saline County, he also represents all Arkansans with public stands for limited, transparent and responsible government.

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