Arkansas Lawmakers Inch Toward End of Session

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Lawmakers are inching toward the end of their legislative session this week, as they take up the state's $4.5 billion budget and a plan to carve up the state's $300 million surplus.

Aside from the two major budget bills and a handful of other issues, legislative leaders say they're on track to end the session by a self-imposed Thursday deadline.

The Joint Budget Committee on Friday advanced identical House and Senate versions of the Revenue Stabilization bill, which sets spending priorities for the upcoming fiscal year based on expected revenue. The panel also advanced a plan on dividing up the state's surplus, including a proposal to use $100 million of the one-time funds to pay for funding gaps.

Identical versions of revenue stabilization bills will be heard by the House and Senate on Wednesday, with a final vote on the budget bills coming on Thursday. --- The votes on the revenue stabilization and budget bills move the Legislature closer to ending this year's session by Thursday.

The proposed General Improvement Fund bill sets aside $60 for the House and Senate to divide equally for various projects, while Beebe will have $63 million to use at his discretion for among $742 million worth of endeavors.

A third of the projected $300 million would be used to plug holes in the state's budget, and lawmakers have also set aside $50 million to replenish a fund they created in 2007 for the governor to attract new businesses to the state and to help existing ones expand.

The House and Senate plan to recess on Thursday and reconvene May 1 to consider correcting errors or overriding gubernatorial vetoes, and then formally adjourn.

--- On Monday, a joint committee is to consider proposed constitutional amendments to refer to the November 2010 ballot. The Legislature can refer up to three proposed constitutional amendments. Legislators say there is time to get a third amendment approved for a vote.

The panel has already approved a constitutional right to hunt and fish, and that proposal is to go before the House on Monday. A proposal that changes the way the state can issue bonds to attract major industries to the state was also advanced, and is to go before the Senate Monday.

--- ore than a dozen tax cut bills that have won House approval are pending before a Senate committee, and the panel's chairman said he's skeptical whether any of them will make it to the full chamber for a vote.

The measures include a proposal to create a one-day sales tax exemption for clothing that costs less than $75. The proposed sales tax holiday, which would come on the first Saturday in August during the back-to-school shopping season, would cost the state $1.6 million a year.

Also pending before the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee is a proposed $42 million cut in the income tax on capital gains, which faces resistance from Gov. Mike Beebe and fiscal officials over fears that the state can't afford to cut in revenue. Sen. Paul Miller, the committee's chairman, said the panel will meet Monday and that he doubts the tax cuts will make it out of committee.

The Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee is expected to continue discussing a proposal by Sen. Joyce Elliott that would require doctors to inform rape victims about emergency contraception. Elliott's proposal, which faced opposition from the Arkansas Family Council and the Arkansas Hospital Association, requires doctors to either give the medication if asked or refer the patient to another doctor.

Another proposal of Elliott's, to offer in-state tuition to the children of illegal immigrants, is scheduled for a Senate vote on Monday. But Elliott said late last week she was unsure if she would try again with the proposal, which was rejected last month by the Senate.

(Copyright 2009 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)