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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Monday that he would call the Legislature into a special session after the conclusion of the current fiscal session to address regulations on pharmacy benefit managers and the open container law. - Photo by Staton Breidenthal

Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced plans on Monday to call lawmakers into a special session later this year to deal with two issues that he and legislative leaders say are of immediate concern.

The special session -- to take place after the ongoing fiscal session -- would focus on two matters, the regulation of pharmacy benefit managers and tweaking the state's open container law to avoid missing out on $12 million in federal funding for highway construction, Hutchinson said.

The leaders of the House and Senate on Friday sent Hutchinson letters asking him to call a session on those two matters in order to keep the fiscal session devoid of bills not having to do with the budget.

Already, a handful of resolutions have been filed by lawmakers seeking to introduce nonappropriation bills in the fiscal session.

The Republican governor has the authority to lay out the agenda for a special session, though lawmakers may add to it with a two-thirds majority vote. Bringing up nonappropriation bills in a fiscal session also takes a two-thirds vote -- 67 of the 100 seats in the House and 24 of the 35 seats in the Senate.

To keep the special session close to three days -- the minimum needed to pass legislation -- Hutchinson said he'll only consider adding items to the call if there's a "consensus on a solution."

That includes the issue of handling both the regulation of pharmacy benefit managers -- who have been accused of causing financial hardship for pharmacists -- and the open container law, which is largely seen as a minor fix to existing law. Hutchinson said he believed there is a "growing consensus" on those issues.

"We still have to develop the language of the specific legislation, and that's up to the legislative body to do that," Hutchinson said.

Pharmacists have complained about cuts in reimbursement that took effect Jan. 1 for drugs provided to Arkansas Blue Cross and Blue Shield customers.

Those customers include many of the more than 285,000 low-income Arkansans with subsidized coverage under the state's Medicaid expansion program, known as Arkansas Works.

Identical proposals by Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne, and Sen. Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne, would place insurers' pharmacy benefit managers under the supervision of the state Insurance Department.

Gray said she'd rather deal with the issue during the fiscal session.

If she can't get a hearing on her proposal during the fiscal session, she said, she plans to vote against the appropriation for the state's Medicaid program, which includes Arkansas Works.

Passage of appropriation bills requires the approval of three-fourths of the members of each chamber -- 75 in the House and 27 in the Senate.

"From my perspective and my constituents' perspective, we don't understand why the governor wouldn't want to essentially stand up for the people of Arkansas and not for some outside company that's threatening to put his constituents out of business," Gray said.

Hutchinson said he supports putting the pharmacy benefits managers under the Insurance Department's supervision but thinks the issue would be better addressed in a special session.

"I expect the fiscal session to be concluded, with all appropriation bills passed, before we go into any special session," he said.

The Medicaid expansion was initially authorized in 2013 by the Republican-controlled Legislature and then-Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat. The funding is in the Department of Human Services' Division of Medical Services appropriation.

Because the program has deeply divided Republicans, the Legislature has struggled each year to obtain the required three-fourths vote in the Legislature to reauthorize the program's spending authority.

Caldwell said he doesn't object to dealing with the pharmacy issue in a special session.

Hutchinson on Monday was decisive when asked whether the ongoing debate over 2017's contentious "campus carry" law could seep into the call for a special session.

"This special session is not about gun legislation," Hutchinson said.

Last week, Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, said he had reached an agreement with the governor to provide relief to the concealed-carry instructors in the state who were upset that they were being required to teach "enhanced" courses to gun owners wanting to take their weapons onto college campuses and other previously off-limits areas. Hutchinson said Monday that he planned to abide by the agreement through the rule-making process.

That route would see the governor delay the requirement for instructors until after the 2019 regular session, when the issue can be raised. But Garner, the sponsor of the campus carry law, said his proposed corrections still have a "very good chance" of being on the governor's call.

"The governor is cognizant of Democrats trying to hijack the bill," Garner said, referring to a proposal by two Democratic lawmakers to address language in the law allowing handguns in dorm rooms.

Sen. Will Bond, D-Little Rock, and Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, have said the dorm room storage prohibition in Act 562 has created a "ridiculous situation" after Arkansas State Police interpreted the law to require that gun owners keep their weapons within arm's reach at all times.

Such rules prevent college students from keeping their weapons in gun safes, they say, and would require taking a gun along during trips to the restroom. They have filed a resolution seeking to change the law during the fiscal session, but Hutchinson said Monday that he saw little support for their proposal now or in a special session.

"If they got two-thirds of the Legislature on a solution, then that's a fair consideration" Hutchinson said. "I think you'd have a hard time getting two-thirds together on legislation involving enhanced carry -- any changes to it right now."

After the governor's news conference, Leding said in a phone interview that he was "disappointed" but will seek to convince the governor and other lawmakers that the issue is worth addressing.

As for other legislation, Hutchinson said on Monday that the proposals must be "urgent" and have broad support among the General Assembly to be placed on the special session call.

Several nonappropriation bills have been proposed for consideration during the fiscal session to address school-choice transfers, hospital assessment fees, off-road vehicle laws and enrollment in the state's version of Medicaid expansion.

Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, and Rep. John Maddox, R-Mena, both hope to have their bills included in the special session. Clark has proposed a tweak to how school-choice transfers are counted; Maddox hopes to fix a law that prevent ATVs from driving on roads when moving from trail to trail.

Other lawmakers who have introduced nonappropriation bills didn't respond to phone messages on Monday afternoon.

Information for this article was contributed by Hunter Field of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 02/20/2018

Print Headline: Special session in plans for state; Governor seeks to tackle 2 issues

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