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STATE CAPITOL BRIEFS: Driverless-vehicle bill gets Senate OK | Telemedicine bill recalled by Senate | Firearms-exemption measure advances

by John Moritz, Michael R. Wickline, Rachel Herzog | April 2, 2021 at 4:05 a.m.
Sen. Bart Hester (center) confers Thursday with Sen. Ricky Hill (left), R-Cabot, and Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, during the Senate session. At Hester’ request, the Senate recalled a bill from the House on telemedicine policy changes to consider amending it. (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Staci Vandagriff)

Driverless-vehicle bill gets Senate OK

Legislation that would make permanent a driverless-vehicle pilot program created in 2019 zipped through the Arkansas Senate on Thursday afternoon.

The Senate voted 35-0 to send House Bill 1562 by Rep. Austin McCollum, R-Bentonville, to the governor.

The bill proposes to allow self-driving cars and trucks on Arkansas roads under a permanent regulatory structure overseen by the Arkansas Highway Commission. McCollum shepherded the legislation in 2019 that created the first pilot program in the state. Under that program, McCollum has said, driverless vehicles have logged hours on roads in Northwest Arkansas, home to Walmart and several major trucking companies.

-- Michael R. Wickline

Telemedicine bill recalled by Senate

The Arkansas Senate on Thursday recalled from the House a bill aimed at continuing the state's policy changes for telemedicine after the governor's declaration of the public health emergency.

Senators expunged the 19-11 vote by which they passed the bill March 18.

The Senate also re-referred the bill to the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee to consider an amendment to the measure. The actions were requested by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, Senate sponsor of House Bill 1063 by Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Cave Springs.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at arkansasonline.com/legislature]

On March 18, the Senate voted 19-11 to approve the bill, despite Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee chairwoman Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, accusing Hester of hijacking the bill with a hostile amendment and saying she would introduce the original agreed-upon version. At that time, Hester said his amendment improved the bill.

Hester said Thursday that his latest proposal to amend the bill seems to matter to some doctors and is aimed at ameliorating Reps. Lee Johnson, R-Greenwood; Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne; John Eubanks, R-Paris; and Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage.

-- Michael R. Wickline

Firearms-exemption measure advances

The Senate on Thursday handily approved a bill that would declare that certain firearms manufactured, sold and kept within Arkansas would not be subject to federal regulation.

The Senate voted 28-7 to approve Senate Bill 59 by Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark.

The bill would not apply to machine guns, black powder weapons or guns that need to be handled by at least two people.

-- Michael R. Wickline

Tax appeals panel heads to governor

The Arkansas Senate on Thursday voted to send the governor a bill that would create an Independent Tax Appeals Commission inside the state Department of Inspector General to resolve disputes between the state Department of Finance and Administration and taxpayers.

The Senate voted 34-1 to approve House Bill 1468 by Rep. Joe Jett, R-Success. Under current law, a taxpayer who receives a proposed assessment or refund claim denial from the finance department can protest the decision to the agency's Office of Hearings and Appeals, which has two administrative law judges.

The Senate also approved 34-1 a companion bill to provide $2.57 million in spending authority and create nine positions for the proposed commission in fiscal 2022, which begins July 1. House Bill 1567, also by Jett, now goes to the governor. The nine positions would include three tax appeals commissioners with salaries from $149,862 to $181,500 a year.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, told senators that the cost of the new commission would be covered by about $4 million in increased state tax revenue projected from a new law that would impose a voluntary individual income tax on pass-through business entities, such as partnerships and S corporations, if they opt to be subject to the tax, and it would exclude certain income from gross income for pass-through entities.

The new law -- Act 362 of 2021 -- could provide federal tax benefits for the affected business entities while potentially increasing state tax collections.

-- Michael R. Wickline

Open records law tweaks clear House

Two bills amending the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act cleared the state House on Thursday.

Senate Bill 196 by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, mandates that defendants in open-records suits pay reasonable attorney fees and litigation expenses incurred by a plaintiff who, after filing suit, receives a significant portion of the records requested.

House Bill 1626 by Rep. Keith Brooks, R-Ferndale, removes a provision in the state open-records law requiring that public employees be notified before their salary information, which is public information, is released. The bill now heads to the Senate.

-- Rachel Herzog

Feminine-products effort sent to House

A bill to allow state education funding to be used for feminine hygiene products in schools was sent Thursday to the Arkansas House.

House Bill 1611 by Rep. Denise Ennett, D-Little Rock, also aims to encourage schools to use federal grants to buy sanitary products to provide to students for free, Ennett said.

Ennett told the House Education Committee that many schools in Arkansas have lots of students who can't afford to buy the products, and some teachers use their own money to buy them for students.

-- Rachel Herzog

Community-schools proposal is revived

Legislation that would support Arkansas public schools in adopting a community-schools model made it out of a House committee on Thursday, after failing in the House last month.

Senate Bill 291 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, aims to encourage schools to provide coordinated wraparound resources, including social services and after-school activities, by working with community partners, something several Arkansas schools are already doing.

The bill allows the Division of Elementary and Secondary Education to assist schools in adopting the community-schools framework by developing guidelines, providing professional development programs and collecting data to enable oversight and inform school improvement.

SB291 fell short in the House after some lawmakers expressed concerns about how student privacy would be protected. The vote was expunged and the bill was re-referred to the House Education Committee.

The legislation was then amended to require schools to obtain consent from students' parents or legal guardians before administering any service.

-- Rachel Herzog

92-0 vote advances student-ID provision

Legislation that would require schools to print hotlines for domestic violence, sexual assault and suicide prevention on student IDs was passed Thursday by the House.

Rep. Tippi McCullough, D-Little Rock, said the bill would be amended on the Senate side to take the phrase "without limitation" out of the bill, to ensure superintendents couldn't print additional numbers on the badges.

The chamber's vote on House Bill 1770 was 92-0.

-- Rachel Herzog

Beer-distributor bid heads to governor

The House voted Thursday to send legislation to Gov. Asa Hutchinson that would allow beer distributors to sell ready-to-drink products that contain liquor but no more than 15% alcohol.

Senate Bill 554, by Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, also would authorize the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division to establish rules for the delivery of ready-to-drink products. The bill passed on a vote of 70-15, with five members voting present. The bill previously passed the Senate, and now heads to the governor's desk.

In a separate action Thursday, the House voted to expunge a vote defeating House Bill 1748, which would have allowed county and city governments to put the issue of Sunday alcohol sales up for a local election. The sponsor, Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville, said he would amend the bill before taking it back to the House for a second vote.

-- John Moritz

House backs setting up arts, tech body

The House on Thursday passed a bill that would create an 18-member Arkansas Legislative Arts and Technology Boot Camp.

State representatives voted 69-18 to send Senate Bill 531 by Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, to the governor.

The boot camp would be required to issue a final written report by Aug. 31, 2022, that would include an inventory of statewide arts and cultural assets; an assessment of the funding required to create, update and maintain a statewide database with such an inventory for each of the Arkansas Art Council's eight districts; and a plan for identifying and leveraging current and future assets in the areas of art and technology.

-- Rachel Herzog

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