Weekly Legislative Roundup
February 22-28, 2021
(Publisher’s note – Due to the current road conditions and the impending winter weather, the Arkansas General Assembly will recess until Monday, Feb. 22, 2021. House Speaker Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and Senate Pro Tempore Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, issued the joint proclamation for the weeklong recess on Feb. 15. The 93rd Arkansas General Assembly that began on Jan. 11 and will be entering its 7th week of the 2021 Regular Session following break. The House earlier passed a resolution to extend this session, if necessary, to May 3. That earlier resolution also provided for a recess on April 9.)
Arkansas General Assembly takes recess due to winter weather
Entering the 6th week of the legislative session, the State of Arkansas observed George Washington’s Birthday and Daisy Gatson Bates Day as an official state holiday on Monday, Feb. 15. In the preceding week, there were 25 proposed constitutional amendments filed in the House and 18 in the Senate during the 5th week of the 93rd Arkansas General Assembly. The deadline to file proposed amendments was Feb. 10. Proposals range from creating a citizen’s commission on minimum wage to tort reform.
The House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee will hear testimony and vote on proposals later this session. Under state law, the Arkansas legislature can place up to three constitutional amendments approved by a majority of the assembly on the November 2022 general election ballot.
For the week ended Feb. 13, the House passed several bills addressing healthcare, including the following:
SB99-This bill regulates step therapy protocols.
Health benefit plans are increasingly making use of step therapy, which often require patients to try one or more prescription drugs before coverage is provided for a drug selected by the healthcare provider. SB99 does not ban the use of step therapy but instead requires insurance providers to set reasonable timelines for requests and appeals.
If implemented, it will ensure that step therapy will be based on medical and clinical guidelines and not require patients to fail on medicines they have already taken or are not in their best interest. This bill has been sent to the Governor for his signature.
HB1176-This bill would ensure that Arkansas Medicaid reimbursements for telemedicine of certain behavioral and mental health services continue after the health emergency ends.
HB1116- This is a bill to establish Simon’s Law, named after a Missouri child whose death led to similar laws being passed in several states. It would require health care professionals to obtain at least one parent’s consent before placing a “do not resuscitate order” for a child.
HB1067-This bill will allow UAMS to create a breast milk bank and establish an account to fund the program.
Other bills advanced by the House during the week include:
HB1265-This bill amends the law concerning the unlawful passing of a school bus. It states drivers must come to a complete stop no less than 30 feet from the bus when it stops to load or unload passengers. The 30-foot perimeter would apply to public roads, private or public property open to the public, and any driveway or parking lot belonging to a public school.
HB1017-This bill states that Arkansas would permanently adopt Daylight Saving Time when the federal government allows states to do so and when surrounding states declare their intent to do so.
SB32-This bill allows liquor stores, micro-brewery restaurants, and small breweries to deliver alcoholic beverages in wet counties. Deliveries are currently allowed under an executive order. This bill will allow the practice to continue once the health emergency order expires.
SB66-This bill allows the tuition-free benefit for soldiers and airmen of the Arkansas National Guard to apply for programs of study in which courses are taken exclusively online.
HB1355-This removes licensing requirements for a motor vehicle salesperson and a recreational vehicle salesperson. This bill also creates the Automotive Technologist Education Grant Program. The Division of Career and Technical Education may then award grants for training in the field of automotive repair and technology.
HB1159-This bill allows members of the General Assembly to defer jury duty to a later date if they are called to serve during a legislative session or the 30 days before and after the session begins.
This bill also allows a person who is 80 years of age or older to voluntarily exempt himself or herself from participating in jury service at any time.
In the upper chamber of the General Assembly, the Senate voted to exempt last year’s unemployment benefits from state income taxes to help people who lost their jobs because of the economic impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Senate Bill 236 would apply to benefits paid in 2020 and 2021. The unemployment rate in Arkansas had been around four percent until the coronavirus pandemic caused widespread business closures, especially in hospitality, tourism and travel. The jobless rate spiked to around 10 percent before it began to improve.
Before the pandemic, about 44,000 people in Arkansas claimed unemployment in 2018 and 2019, a state revenue official told senators during a committee hearing on SB 236. Last year more than 281,000 people filed for unemployment, according to the Department of Workforce Services.
SB 236 will save those people more than $51 million in state income taxes when they file this year, state revenue official said. The next step is for the bill to be considered by a House committee, and if advanced out of committee, to be voted on by the entire House.
On a voice vote, the House Judiciary Committee failed to advance a Senate bill known as the Stand Your Ground bill. It would repeal a provision in current laws that obligates you to retreat from a confrontation if you can safely do so. Senate and House sponsors said they are confident that the entire House will approve SB 24 if they can get it out of committee. The bill has already passed in the Senate, by a vote of 27-to-7.
The Senate also approved HB 1195 to require pregnant women who are seeking an abortion to first call a hotline and get counseling on the availability of resources to help if she decides to keep her child. The hotline would be a toll-free number. Sponsors say that fewer women will choose an abortion if they are fully informed about their options.
The Senate passed HB 1151 to postpone for a year the giving of letter grades to schools when the state issues school report cards. The pandemic has disrupted the ability of students to take standardized tests, which are a key factor in assigning letter grades to schools. The postponement is for the 2020-2021 school year. The bill has passed the House and now goes to the governor.
The Senate has passed and sent to the House a bill to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities who need an organ transplant. It is SB 155, also known as “Lila’s Law,” after a girl with Down syndrome who needed a heart transplant and was denied because of her disability.
State Revenue Report
State tax collections in January boost state budget coffers at record rates, according to the state Department of Finance & Administration (DFA). Tax rates have not increased; therefore, the fiscal 2021 revenue growth is an indication that the Arkansas economy is rebounding from the negative impact caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, DFA officials said.
The state now has a surplus of about $400 million after the first seven months of the fiscal year. Near the end of the session, legislators will decide how best to use the surplus. For example, the $51 million in income tax exemptions for unemployment benefits, written into SB 236, can be absorbed by the state because of the large surplus.