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STATE CAPITOL NEWS IN BRIEF: Session hits 108 days | Lawmakers OK justices resolution | Filing fees bill fails in Senate

by — Michael R. Wickline and Noel Oman — Rachel Herzog | April 28, 2021 at 1:00 a.m.

Session hits 108 days

Today is the 108th day of the regular session, the longest session since 1931.

The session started Jan. 11 and it’s been slowed by precautions taken amid the covid-19 pandemic and a week’s break after a severe snowfall. Legislative leaders hoped to wrap up work and then go into recess early this morning with the intention of returning in the fall to complete the redrawing of congressional district boundaries.

The longest session in recent years was 101 days in 2013.

The 2013 regular session marked the first time since the post-Civil War Reconstruction era in the 19th century that the Republican Party controlled both legislative chambers. But lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said the length of that session had more to do with the issues tackled, and none was more complex than the proposed Medicaid expansion to provide private health insurance coverage to low-income Arkansans.

Prior to 2013, the last session to last at least 100 days was in 1931, during the Great Depression, when the 48th regular meeting of the General Assembly completed its work after 121 days.

The General Assembly regularly met far longer in the late 19th century and early 20th century. The longest was the 38th meeting of the General Assembly in 1911. It lasted 125 days, or more than a third of the year.

U.S. Supreme Court

A resolution calling on Congress to propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution keeping the number of Supreme Court justices at nine has passed in both houses of the Arkansas Legislature.

House sponsor Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, said the high court was expanded for political reasons prior to 1869, and Americans of all political stripes support the traditional nine justices.

Democrats in Congress said earlier this month they would introduce legislation to expand the number of justices to 13.

Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, spoke against the resolution, saying lawmakers shouldn’t use resolutions to bash or demonize people they disagree with.

Senate Joint Resolution 18 by Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, passed in a divided voice vote.

Student crisis-line numbers

The Arkansas House concurred in a Senate amendment to a provision that would require schools to print hotlines for domestic violence, sexual assault and suicide prevention on student IDs, sending the bill to the governor.

Since passing in the House, the bill was amended to only allow schools to print those three numbers, as well as school-specific information. The bill was also amended to add Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, as a sponsor.

The chamber’s votes on the two amendments to House Bill 1770 by House Minority Leader Tippi Mc-Cullough, D-Little Rock, were 96-0.

— Rachel Herzog

Political party filing fees

Legislation that would establish minimum political party filing fees for state offices failed to clear the Arkansas Senate on Tuesday.

The Senate’s 15-14 vote on Senate Bill 684 by Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, fell three votes short of the 18 required for approval in the 35-member Senate.

The bill would set the minimum filing fee for candidates to $12,000 for U.S. senator and governor, $10,000 for U.S. representative, $7,500 for lieutenant governor and attorney general, $6,000 for secretary of state land, commissioner of state lands, treasurer and auditor, $4,500 for state Senate and $3,000 for state House of Representative.

The bill comes on the heels of the state Democratic Party in March cutting its filing fee for candidates for these offices below those levels. Democratic legislative candidates may alternatively have their filing fee waived if running against a Republican incumbent and if they obtain the signature of either their county party chairman or an executive committee member.

Garner said he set the minimum filing fees in his bill based on the lowest political party filing fees in the last election. He also said the vast majority of states set the filing fees for candidates.

But Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said it’s a bad idea to take the power away from the parties to set their filing fees for state offices.

— Michael R. Wickline

Anti-espionage bill

Legislation that aims to prevent espionage and foreign influence at state higher education institutions is headed to Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s desk.

Senate Bill 609 by Sen. Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, prohibits colleges and universities from accepting gifts or entering into contracts with foreign services that compromise the integrity of the institution’s research, instruction or operations; the institution’s intellectual property rights; the protection of confidential information; or the safety and security of the institution, its personnel and students, the state or the United States.

It also would require institutions to report and make disclosures about gifts from a foreign source valued at more than $250,000.

Additionally, SB609 would ban institutions from hosting a Confucius Institute, or any entity affiliated with the People’s Republic of China, the Chinese Communist Party or China’s People’s Liberation Army.

The only Confucius Institute in the state is hosted at the University of Central Arkansas and is a partnership with East China Normal University, according to its website.

House sponsor Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, said the bill arose out of an espionage case at the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville. In 2020, an engineering professor at the university was named in a criminal complaint alleging felony wire fraud related to his pursuit of federal research grants despite close ties to China.

Bentley said the bill has no opposition from any of the state’s universities.

The bill passed 76-15 in the House.

— Rachel Herzog

Health insurance board

The Arkansas Legislature on Tuesday gave final approval to a bill dissolving the board that oversees health insurance plans for state government and public school employees.

The House voted 94-0 to approve Senate Bill 693, by Senate President Pro Tempo-re Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana. It now heads to Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, said Monday that he expects the bill to shift decisions and policy determinations for the State and Public School Life and Health Insurance Program to the state Board of Finance for six to eight months.

The Legislature plans to hire a consultant to review the health insurance plans for state government and public school employees and plans to create a new board for the plans that include representation from state and public school employees and retirees, Wardlaw told the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.

The Legislative Council’s executive subcommittee on Monday decided to interview two of the six consultants who submitted responses to a request for proposals from consultants to help develop and implement a strategic plan and legislative framework for the two health insurance plans. The two consultants are Segal based in Atlanta and Cheiron Inc. of North Carolina.

— Rachel Herzog and Michael R. Wickline

Agriculture foreign investment reports

After concurring with three House amendments, the Senate on Tuesday approved legislation that would require, starting Oct. 1, a foreign person mandated to make a report to the U.S. Department of Agriculture under the Agricultural Foreign Investment Act to file a copy of the report with the secretary of the state Department of Agriculture.

The Senate voted 34-1 to send Senate Bill 312 by Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, to the governor.

Under the bill, the attorney general may impose a civil penalty not to exceed 25% of the fair market value, on the date of assessment of the penalty, of the interest in the agricultural land for failure to file a copy of the report with the secretary of the Department of Agriculture as required. The attorney general also may bring an action to collect the civil penalty in the Pulaski County circuit court or in the circuit court of any county in which any portion of the agricultural land acquired is located.

— Michael R. Wickline

Medical marijuana telehealth

A bill to allow telehealth certification for medical marijuana has passed in the Arkansas Legislature.

The House voted 59-18 to approve Senate Bill 703 by Sen. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, sending the bill to the governor.

During the pandemic, the Arkansas Department of Health allowed certification for medical marijuana cards to be done via telemedicine, House sponsor Rep. Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne said. SB703 extends that in perpetuity, she said.

— Rachel Herzog

Eviction-record sealing

Senate Bill 476 by Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, to allow tenants who were evicted as a result of being adversely affected by the covid-19 pandemic to ask for that eviction record to be sealed failed in the Arkansas House on Tuesday.

House sponsor Rep. Ashley Hudson, D-Little Rock, said the law would not prevent landlords from evicting a tenant who is not paying rent, and would not prevent the landlord from collecting rent. Tenants would have to prove that their inability to pay rent was caused by the pandemic in order to get the record sealed.

Two Republican representatives spoke against the bill, saying it creates a problem for landlords who might be trying to find out whether a new tenant had failed to pay rent.

— Rachel Herzog

Rental housing standards

After concurring with two House amendments, the Senate voted Tuesday to send to the governor a bill that would create minimum housing standards for renters.

The Senate voted 34-0 to approve Senate Bill 594, by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy.

It would require minimal standards for rental housing such as running water, electricity, a functioning roof and a working heating and cooling system.

Dismang said the bill is a step in the right direction, though some people would like the bill to do more.

— Michael R. Wickline


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