by Caleb Talley | Photography by Jamison Mosley
The 2019 legislative session of the 92nd General Assembly began on Jan. 14 when lawmakers converged on the Arkansas State Capitol. The session is already a historic one, as the number of women in the Arkansas Legislature matches the record high set in 2009. But just as momentous is what the session could produce in consequential legislation, as lawmakers are expected to take action on highway funding, education and ethics reform, among other key issues.
The session convened with 32 female legislators – 25 among 100 state representatives, up from 18 last year, and seven in the Senate, down from eight last year. Seven of the House’s 24 freshmen are women, all of whom took positions previously held by male lawmakers.
In 2017, Rep. Sarah Capp (R-Ozark) launched a project in which a number of female lawmakers filmed video monologues with the intent to encourage young women to pursue careers in the political arena. The videos were posted to social media with the hashtag “ARGIRLSLEAD.” With the re-elections in November of Attorney General Leslie Rutledge and Auditor Andrea Lea, the number of women serving in Arkansas’ constitutional offices in 2019 is at an all-time high.
All state lawmakers, men and women alike, will be tasked this session with finding long-term solutions to issues that continue to reemerge every two years. The chief among them is likely to be highway funding.
“The need hasn’t gone away,” says Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram (D-West Memphis), of state highway funding. “We have to address it. It costs us more each day. If you had a house, and the roof was leaking, you wouldn’t wait until the roof fell in to fix it.”
According to the Arkansas Department of Transportation, nearly $500 million in additional funding is needed annually to maintain and repair state highways. A half-cent sales tax currently contributes to the $455 million spent annually on state highways, and Gov. Asa Hutchinson has suggested the sales tax be extended.
To date, the state has scratched together $50 million annually from general revenue to maintain eligibility for $200 million in federal match funds for highways. State lawmakers are hoping to piecemeal more funding.
“What I’d like to see is a long-term solution,” says freshman Senator James Sturch (R-Batesville), who served on the House transportation committee during the 91st General Assembly. “For a long time, we’ve been kicking the can down the road. We didn’t want to do this. We didn’t want to do that. I think we’ve pushed ourselves into a corner, where we might end up with a knee-jerk reaction because we’ve let ourselves get this far. But in search of a resolution, we have to realize that it needs to be for the long-term.”
In a November speech to the American Council of Engineering Companies, ARDOT Director Scott Bennett said that raising $400 million for state’s highway would require a 28.4 cent per gallon fuel tax increase, a 16.6 percent wholesale sales tax increase on fuel, a vehicle registration fee increase of $208 or a general sales tax increase of 1.16 percent.
A bill was filed during the 2017 legislative session to refer a bond measure to the ballot to generate approximately $200 million a year in additional highway funding. The bill, filed by Rep. Dan Douglas (R-Bentonville) coincided with another piece of proposed legislation that would have raised the state’s fuel tax. Neither bills received much support from state legislators.
A bill has not yet been filed to address highway funding, but according to Ingram, the framework of such legislation is being put together by legislative leaders.
Lawmakers may have the opportunity to open up a new stream of revenue for highways if House Bill 1002, filed by Rep. Douglas, passes during the current legislative session. The bill, which was the first filed during the pre-filing period that opened in mid-November, would require out-of-state sellers to collect and remit the state sales and use tax on online transactions.
Under current law, buyers are required to pay a sales and use tax on tangible goods bought out of state and used in Arkansas. According to lawmakers, the tax is rarely paid. As a result, consumers are more likely to purchase goods from out-of-state sellers at a lower price than they might from local stores. Placing the responsibility on sellers, such as Amazon, rather than buyers could remedy the problem.
“We have to make sure that we’re looking out for our cities and brick and mortar stores,” Rep. Charles Blake (D-Little Rock) says. “We want to close that loophole.”
According to Ingram, the loss of tax revenue to local municipalities as a result of less costly out-of-state options will eventually weigh on local governments. He urges fellow lawmakers not to view the bill as a new tax.
“I get the feeling we will see something [on internet sales tax],” Ingram says. “I’ve never understood why we would put our local merchants at a disadvantage. Those taxes are already owed. This is not a new tax; it’s owed and due.
“If we don’t, within the next five years, we’ll see a serious eroding of our local sales tax base. They’re going to have a hard time continuing to operate and providing services if we don’t address this issue.”
Education will certainly be an important topic addressed during the legislative session. Lawmakers are expected to revive bills filed during the 2017 session regarding school choice and private school educational savings accounts.
“There will definitely be a major discussion for the attempt, through vouchers, to divert funds from public schools to private schools,” Ingram says. “I believe our state is just not wealthy enough to divert any funds from public schools. That will be a healthy debate this session.”
Also to be addressed is Hutchinson’s promise to raise starting salaries for Arkansas’ public school teachers.
During the first week of the session, a bill was filed by Rep. Bruce Cozart (R-Hot Springs), chairman of the House education committee, to increase the salaries of public school teachers based on the level of education and years of experience. In addition to raises, Cozart says he also hopes to address adequacy funding.
“I think what we’ll see is teacher pay raises and a good look at how we implement those over the next four years without putting an unfunded mandate on our schools,” says Sturch, who serves on the Senate education committee. “I think we’ll also see a push to revisit and revamp our funding formula for adequacy. When it was first established, it was based on a 500-student school. Well, that’s a little different than now.”
According to both Sturch and Cozart, school transportation funding will likely be addressed during the session, as well.
“This year, there should be some changes in the transportation fund,” Cozart says. “I’m working on bills in that regard. We’re looking to make it fairer to the schools that are losing money. It’ll probably pull from some of the schools who are making money, and that’s the goal, to even it out.”
Sturch adds, “For years, Arkansas schools were paid the same amount for transportation whether they were covering 100 square miles or 500 square miles. From the legislative standpoint, we didn’t understand why they were spending three times as much as others. Well, it was because they had to. Some want transportation to be pulled from the matrix and not funded that way. I think you’ll see these discussions continue.”
Cozart also hopes to improve the quality of public education in Arkansas by better understanding what it takes to get children excited to learn by giving teachers the tools they need to do their job to the best of their ability.
“We want to close the gap with these kids,” he says. “We know throwing money at it is not the issue. We just have to, hopefully, figure out the right way to get our teachers the tools they need and figure out what interests our kids. All students have something they really like. How do you get that out of them?”
Another hot topic grabbing headlines this session is ethics reform. Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren (R-Gravette), in an address to fellow lawmakers when the session convened, warned legislators not to bring further dishonor to the General Assembly, noting the string of indictments and convictions in recent years for corruption-related charges. Five former legislators have been convicted or pleaded guilty in federal court, and more cases are pending.
Rep. Matthew Shepherd, (R-El Dorado), after being unanimously voted in as House speaker, echoed Hendren’s sentiments.
According to Ingram, his caucus is preparing a package of bills regarding ethics reform, and he hopes members of both parties will welcome the proposed pieces of legislation.
“We’ve got a package we’ve been working on that is five or six pieces of legislation,” he says. “Hopefully this will be introduced as bipartisan legislation by leaders in both the House and the Senate.
“Simply put, we have to restore trust to the people of Arkansas. We need to do that. These are steps in the right direction.”
Sturch echoes Hendren’s words when asked about the need for ethics reform in the Arkansas Legislature.
“Sen. Hendren said it best when he said, ‘The actions of a few have cast a dark cloud over all of us.’ There are so many distinguished people who serve, all coming from different backgrounds and different paths to getting here,” Sturch says. “Everyone I know has a genuine desire to serve. We need to do our best to restore our image and earn back the trust of Arkansans. We care. And we want to show that we care.”
Cozart cites changes made in the Senate to improve transparency as being a step in the right direction. He voices his support for any practical effort to restore the trust of the public.
“We’re glad to see the Senate come around, doing some of the things we’ve been doing at the House level – filming meetings, taping committee meetings… I think that reform will be good for the Senate regarding being more open and transparent,” he says. “As far as other changes, regarding ethics, I’m all for it.”
Another bill of interest, pre-filed by Blake, would automatically register willing voters when they renew their driver’s license or state-issued ID card. Blake says he expects a challenge, specifically in regard to the cost of the measure, but says reception to the plan has been good.
“The reception among my colleagues has been positive, especially in our caucus,” says Blake, a Democrat. “There are also some Republicans who are very willing to make sure we have one of the strongest and most secure voter registration processes in the nation.”
Ingram also expects lawmakers to debate legislation regarding abortion and guns, as they have in the past. To date, three bills have been filed in regard to abortion, two of them by Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado).
Senate Bill 2 would make it illegal for a woman to get an abortion because the unborn child has Down syndrome. Senate Bill 3 would add reporting requirements for doctors when a patient has complications from an abortion. House Bill 1164, filed by Rep. Aaron Pilkington (R-Clarksville), would allow pharmacists to dispense oral contraceptives without a prescription, which he says would reduce abortions.
OTHER BILLS OF NOTE
House Bill 1070, by Rep Andy Davis (R-Little Rock) and Sen. Bart Hester (R-Cave Springs), would create the Transformation and Efficiencies Act, to establish 14 cabinet-level departments led by an executive head.
Senate Concurrent Resolution 1 would eliminate the legislature’s bill filing deadline. On the bill filing deadline in 2017, over 500 bills were filed, many of which were shell bills.
Senate Bill 115 by Sen. Bob Ballinger (R-Berryville) would create an exemption to the Minimum Wage Act for employers with fewer than 50 employees, employers that are schools or institutions of higher education and nonprofits.
House Bill 1150 by Rep. Douglas House (R-North Little Rock) would significantly expand the list of qualifying medical conditions to use medical marijuana.
Senate Bill 75 by Sen. David Wallace (R-Leachville) would replace Arkansas’ two statues in the United States Capitol’s Statuary Hall – Uriah Milton Rose and James Paul Clarke – with civil rights activist Daisy Bates and music legend Johnny Cash.