LITTLE ROCK -- Divisions within the Republican Party over tax cuts and questions about the launch of the Bible Belt's first medical marijuana program are expected to dominate the agenda when Arkansas lawmakers return to the Capitol this week to start their 2017 session.
When the 91st General Assembly convenes at noon on Monday, Republicans will hold their largest majority in the Legislature since Reconstruction after gaining seats in the November election and the defection of three previously Democratic lawmakers. The GOP will hold 76 of 100 seats in the House and 26 of the 35 seats in the Senate. With those numbers and a Republican administration about to take over in the White House, GOP leaders are eyeing major changes in tax policy, health reform and on social issues.
Here's a look at the some of the top issues on the agenda for lawmakers:
Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson is preparing for a tough battle with members of his own party over competing tax cut plans. Hutchinson has proposed a $50 million income tax cut benefiting residents making less than $21,000 a year, along with a $13 million income tax break for retired military veterans. He faces pushback from some Republicans who are calling for deeper tax cuts that would take effect sooner than the governor's plan envisions. One lawmaker has called for a $105 million income tax cut, while GOP lawmakers have also floated the idea of halting the final phase of a grocery tax cut to pay for further income tax reductions. Republican House Speaker Jeremy Gillam has floated the possibility lawmakers may not enact any tax cuts this session and wait until a special session later or during the 2019 session.
Voters in November directed the state to begin a medical marijuana program. Lawmakers face an early March deadline to finalize rules for regulating the drug and the nonprofit dispensaries that will sell it. One proposal has been filed to push back that date to early May, and to delay the deadline for the state to begin accepting dispensary applications from June to July. Opponents of the medical marijuana amendment have urged lawmakers to put additional restrictions on the types of marijuana products that can be sold, and where it can be sold. One lawmaker has also proposed levying an additional sales tax on the drug that he says could pay for tax cuts elsewhere. Hutchinson has said he thinks the commission formed to regulate the drug should address any additional restrictions and opposes an additional sales tax on cannabis to pay for tax cuts or other budget needs.
Hutchinson and legislative leaders say they don't believe there will be another funding fight over the future of the state's hybrid Medicaid expansion, especially while Congress takes up an effort to repeal the federal health care law that enabled the expanded coverage. More than 300,000 people are on Arkansas' program, which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor, and a new set of restrictions that include premiums charged to some participants took effect with the new year. The top Republican in the Senate has said there may be some modifications to the program, but thinks longer-term changes would need to be taken up in a special session after Congress acts.
Hutchinson's legislative agenda includes a new grant program that would provide two years of tuition and fees at an Arkansas community or technical college to any student who enrolls in a high demand field of study, such as computer science or welding. Hutchinson has proposed funding the program by redirecting $8.2 million in general funds from other grant programs. Hutchinson has also called on lawmakers to back a plan to tie money for colleges and universities to factors such as their graduation rates. The governor has said he'll call for increasing higher education funding by $10 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1, 2018, if lawmakers back the new funding formula.
Republicans are expected to push for further restrictions on abortion, and a bill has already been filed to prohibit dilation and evacuation, a second trimester procedure that abortion supporters say is the safest and most common. Hutchinson has said he'll likely support that measure. Anti-abortion advocates are also calling for measure banning the procedure based on the fetus' sex. An effort is also expected in the Legislature to restrict which bathrooms transgender people can use. Hutchinson has called a bathroom bill unnecessary and counterproductive, but has stopped short of saying he'd veto one if it reached his desk.State Desk on 01/09/2017