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Cash & Candor’s Legislative Recap: Highways, Tort Reform and More!

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by Caleb Talley

The number of bills filed this legislative session has barreled past the 2,000-mile marker. We’re now up to 2,370, and the end isn’t exactly in sight.

On Monday, the House overwhelmingly approved (92-0, the rest chose not to vote) a resolution that will extend the legislative session to May 6. It’s now in the Senate, where it will most certainly pass and add a few more weeks to what has already felt like a marathon session.

There are still some hot button issues left to address, issues that we haven’t yet hashed out but certainly deserve some hashing.

High on that list is Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s highway funding plan, which comes to us in the form of SB 336 and HB1495; and SJR14 and HJR1018.

SB336 and HB1495, if passed, would implement a fuel tax to fund highway improvements, something a select few lawmakers and I have called for since at least 2017. The governor has warmed up to the notion, and so too much of the General Assembly.

In its entirety, the bills seek to levy an indexed wholesale tax on motor fuel and places revenue from that and other sources in the State Highway Fund for maintenance of streets, highways and bridges. It would add annual fees of $100 and $200, respectively, to hybrid and electric vehicle registration. Casino tax revenues more than $31,200,000 annually with a minimum of $35,000,000, would be transferred to the State Highway Fund, as well.

SB336 passed the Senate with a vote of 27-8. A handful of Republican lawmakers wanted to show just how “conservative” they were by voting against the only viable highway funding plan. Thankfully, they were in the minority. The bill received a “do pass” recommendation by a unanimous oral vote earlier this week in the House Revenue & Taxation Committee. The bill was scheduled to be addressed by the House on Thursday but was not.

SJR14 and HJR1018 seek to amend the constitution to continue the one-half percent sales tax that provides additional funding for four-lane highways, county roads and city streets. If passed, voters will have the opportunity to vote on the resolution in 2020. HJR1018 was endorsed by the House State Agencies & Governmental Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

And to no one’s surprise, Arkansas lawmakers have renewed their fight for tort reform.

After losing a battle to the Arkansas Supreme Court just before last year’s election, proponents of overhauling the state’s tort laws are learning from their mistakes and amending refocusing their efforts.

SJR8, filed earlier this month, would allow the General Assembly to adopt caps on punitive and noneconomic damages. If approved by a majority of Arkansas voters in 2020, the legislature, beginning in 2021, would have the ability to file bills addressing caps on both punitive and noneconomic damages. Stakeholders, like the Arkansas State Chamber, were involved in the drafting of the measure.

HJR1022 and SJR17, identical bills, were filed the very next day. These measures would limit punitive damages only, something the state chamber says would not go far enough.

Tort reform proponents have abandoned, for now, their efforts to change court rules and cap attorney fees, which helped sink Issue 1 last year.

Each legislative session, lawmakers may only refer up to three constitutional amendments to voters the following year. Each tort reform measures will undoubtedly compete against the other for a position among other measures left to be decided, including the highway funding-related measure. Other resolutions include term limits, the frequency of legislative sessions and the initiative process.

Maybe lawmakers could draft a resolution for voters to approve more constitutional amendments – the legislative equivalent to asking a genie for more wishes.

Some more interesting tidbits from this week in the Legislature:

  • The Arkansas House, by a vote of 77 to 13 (10 didn’t vote), passed HB1439, by Rep. Robin Lundstrum, which limits abortions to within an 18-week window during pregnancy, making Arkansas the 3rd state to do so. The text of the bill would actually set a ban on abortion after 18 weeks since a woman’s last period, or up to around 16 weeks post-fertilization. It would limit abortion to the shortest window in the nation. The standard will almost certainly test the limits of what the courts will allow. Earlier this month, state lawmakers passed a “trigger” bill that would ban abortions from the moment of conception if the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade.
  • Keeping with abortion, the Arkansas Senate on Thursday voted 29-5 on SB341, a bill to require doctors to notify women seeking abortions about a so-called reversal procedure. It refers primarily to doctors who provide a two-pill regimen to cause a miscarriage in the early weeks of a pregnancy to tell women who receive the first pill that they can reverse the process by not taking the second pill. The bill encourages women to “locate immediate help by searching the term ‘abortion pill reversal’ on the internet.” Critics of the measure, like the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, say “abortion reversal” claims are not supported by scientific evidence.
  • Bills that would have allowed advanced practice registered nurses to prescribe drugs without an agreement with a physician failed in the Senate last Thursday and the House on Tuesday.
  • The Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday endorsed the Plant Board’s rules regarding the use of controversial herbicide dicamba, which would permit its use through May 25.

AmericaIn Cash & Candor, Arkansas Money & Politics Editor Caleb Talley dishes on all things business and politics in and around the Natural State. Opinions stated in this series are his own and do not necessarily reflect that of Vowell, Inc. and its employees. He can be contacted by email at ctalley@aymag.com. Find more Cash & Candor here, or you can read his features in our latest issue of AMP

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