Legislature completes major work of regular session


LITTLE ROCK — The House and Senate on Tuesday wrapped up the business of the 2013 regular legislative session, the first since Reconstruction with Republicans in the majority.

Both chambers passed and sent to Gov. Mike Beebe legislation to set spending priorities for a $4.9 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, along with legislation setting aside about $170 million from the state surplus to be allocated by the governor and legislators for capital projects.

The session lasted 100 days. Legislators are scheduled to return on May 17 for formal adjournment. They also can use that opportunity to make technical corrections to legislation and attempt to override gubernatorial vetoes. Override attempts are expected on three vetoes that Beebe issued Tuesday.

The new priorities of the GOP-dominated Legislature became clear early in the session. Legislators passed measures to ban most abortions at 12 weeks; keep secret the names of people with concealed handgun permits; allow people with concealed handgun permits to carry their guns into church unless a church bars them; and allow employees of colleges and universities to carry concealed handguns on campus unless a school bars them.

Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe vetoed the 12-week abortion ban, as well as another measure banning most abortions at 20 weeks, both of which he said were unconstitutional. Legislators overrode both vetoes. The American Civil Liberties Union has already filed a lawsuit challenging the 12-week ban.

Beebe also vetoed a measure, supported by Republicans and opposed by Democrats, to require voters to show photo identification at the polls. The Legislature overrode that veto as well.

The governor decided not to sign or veto the bill to keep the names of people with concealed handgun permits secret, saying he would let it become law without his signature. However, Lt. Gov. Mark Darr irked Beebe by signing the bill into law as acting governor while Beebe was attending a National Governors Association conference in Washington.

In the closing weeks of the session, legislators approved the so-called “private option” for expanding health care coverage in the state under the federal Affordable Care Act. The plan, Arkansas’ unique alternative to expanding the state Medicaid rolls, calls for federal Medicaid dollars to be used to pay the premiums for about 250,000 of the state’s working poor to buy private insurance through the state insurance exchange.

Also passed in the final weeks were a package of incentives for a proposed $1.1 billion Big River Steel plant in Mississippi County, including a $125 bond issue, and package of tax cuts that will be phased in and will total about $140 million by the 2015-16 fiscal year.

Beebe also pushed through the Legislature a reduction in the state sales tax on groceries from 1 1/2 cents on the dollar to one-eighth of a cent, to take effect only if certain of the state’s financial obligations decline by $35 million for six consecutive months.

Over his two terms in office, Beebe has successfully pushed for gradual reductions in the tax, which was 6 cents when he first took office in 2007.

“Off the top of my head, I can’t think of anything that I wanted to happen that did not happen,” Beebe said Tuesday after signing the legislation on the private option, although he said he would have liked to see his vetoes stand.

Beebe called the passage of health care expansion “a victory for all of Arkansas.”

Sen. Hank Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff, said it was “a tough session” but ultimately one that lawmakers could be proud of.

“As we got the guns and the abortions and all of that stuff behind us and really started dealing with the meat of the issue, which has to do with the state’s budget and particularly our Medicaid expansion, it was at that point that people really began to buckle down and work together, understanding that we’ve got to have cooperation or we won’t get anything done,” he said.

House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, called the session “a home run.”

“Any one of those three big issues that we focused on — the steel mill, the tax reform, dealing with health care and the private option — any one of those by itself is a huge deal, and for this body to tackle all three of those things in one session I think is pretty remarkable,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, a lawyer, said he regretted not passing any kind of tort reform but was pleased overall with the session.

“We probably learned it was harder to do than when we were criticizing those who were trying to do it before us, but we were able to work with the Democratic Party and the Republican Party and make it work,” he said.

Health care expansion passed with solid Democratic support, but it was divisive for Republicans, many of whom had campaigned for office on promises to fight implementation of the federal Affordable Care Act.

House Majority Leader Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, tried unsuccessfully to rally Republican House members against the plan. He said Tuesday that “time will tell” whether approving it was a good decision.

“I hope for the state that the private option works out well,” he said.

Last year, the Republican House Caucus unveiled a conservative agenda for the session that included an annual growth cap on state spending, an overhaul of the state’s income tax system, a voter ID law, Medicaid reforms, new abortion restrictions, mandatory drug testing for people seeking welfare and unemployment benefits, legislative oversight of legal settlements collected by the attorney general, tort reform, reduced government regulation and more education options for parents.

With the exceptions of the spending cap, drug testing and tort reform, all of the above passed in some form. Westerman said at least 50 bills that fit into the caucus’ agenda passed.

“I think as we get further away from the session and reflect back on it, we’ll see that there was a lot of conservative legislation passed, that (Republicans) did do a good job as the governing party for the first time in 138 years,” he said.

House Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said that “all in all I do think it was a successful session for the Democratic caucus.”

“We did have some trouble at the beginning,” he said. “We saw a lot of legislation passed that we would have preferred to be able to stop. But we were able to help get Big River Steel passed, we were able to get Medicaid passed. There’s a quarter of a million Arkansans who are going to be able to get access to insurance.”

Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, said that during the session he received 25 to 30 emails a day from constituents in support of gun rights, so he was pleased to help pass several bills on that issue.

“It wasn’t perfect, but I think that we showed people that Republicans and Democrats could get along and could work together and work for the best of their districts and of the state,” he said.

Rep. Patti Julian, D-North Little Rock, said she was disappointed by the passage of the abortion bans and the voter ID bill but pleased by the passage of the private option, the Big River Steel incentives and tax relief.

“Even though the session sort of started off in a partisan manner on some of social-issue legislation, we ended on a really strong bipartisan note,” she said. “I wish that Washington could learn a lesson from us.”

— Reporter Rob Moritz contributed to this report.