Gov. Hutchinson, legislative leadership discuss state budget; early voting bill approved in Senate

Extended session expected this fall on redistricting, special session on tax cuts as well

Gov. Hutchinson, legislative leadership discuss state budget; early voting bill approved in Senate
Lawmakers spent Thursday working on several bills as the state's legislative session draws to a close. (Source: ABC/NBC)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (KAIT) - It was a long road to create a state budget, but state officials said Thursday that the bill headed to lawmakers provides funding for major issues and will help the state into the future.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson, along with House Speaker Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado) and Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey (R-Texarkana) spoke to reporters about the state’s budget.

The $5.8 billion budget was approved by the Joint Budget Committee Thursday morning and is expected to go to lawmakers next week.

According to content partner KARK, Gov. Hutchinson said the budget is the first reduction in general revenue since 2011, with the state providing the largest percentage in education adequacy funding since 2006.

The state is also expected to have a $700 million long-term reserve fund by the end of the fiscal year, on June 30. The reserve fund is roughly 12% of the state’s budget and will provide a better bond rating and interest rate for projects, Hutchinson said.

The state has also reduced its general obligation debts to $1.7 billion, from $2.6 billion, Hutchinson said.

Lawmakers are expected to recess next week for the session. However, Gov. Hutchinson said an extended session will be done this fall for redistricting the state’s congressional seats and that a special session would also be called at that time.

The special session will be called to reduce the state’s income tax rate.

Senate approves early voting bill

The Senate voted 19-13 Thursday evening to approve a bill that would change the hours for early voting in the state.

Under the bill, early voting would end at 4 p.m. on the Saturday before the election. Current law sets the end of early voting at 5 p.m. on the Monday before an election.

Sen. Hammer said the bill would streamline the system by helping election officials and was an idea that has been supported by Republicans and Democrats alike in the past.

However, those opposed to the bill, including Sen. Linda Chesterfield (D-Little Rock) said the change would remove a day of voting away from Arkansas voters.

The bill now heads to the House.

Riot bill approved by Senate

A bill that would strengthen the state’s aggravated assault and battery laws to include first responders and would strengthen the state’s riot laws received support Thursday from the state Senate.

The Senate voted 28-5 to approve HB1508.

Under the bill, a person who “knowingly causes physical contact with a first responder by spitting, throwing or otherwise transferring bodily fluids, pathogens or human waste” on a first responder could face a Class C aggravated assault felony with a mandatory $10,000 fine and 90 days in jail.

Also, the person could face charges for throwing a brick, rock, bottle, projectile, firework, chemical agent or explosive device at a first responder.

A person convicted of riot could face at least 30 days in jail and be ordered to pay restitution for any injury, damage or loss they cause, while a person convicted of aggravated riot could face 45 days in jail and be ordered to pay restitution.

Student-athlete bill signed into law

A bill that would allow college athletes in the state of Arkansas to be compensated for their name, image and likeness was signed into law Thursday.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed HB1671, sponsored by House Speaker Matthew Shepherd (R-El Dorado).

Under the bill, a college athlete could enter into a contract and receive compensation for the commercial use of their publicity rights. Officials noted that the athlete could not endorse certain things, like casinos, tobacco, alcohol, illegal drugs or adult entertainment.

The law takes effect in Jan. 2022.

Renters bill approved in House

The House overwhelmingly approved a bill Thursday to allow renters to have protections on property rights.

The 89-0 vote was on SB594, sponsored by Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe). According to the bill, landlords would be required to provide electricity, hot and cold water and a working sewer system.

The bill was approved 28-1 in the Senate and now heads back to the Senate.

Constitutional amendments approved in House, Senate

Lawmakers also approved three proposed constitutional amendments for the 2022 general election ballot.

The Senate voted 23-6 to approve HJR1005. The resolution would require 60% approval for certain statewide measures on the ballot.

The Senate voted 27-4 to approve SJR14. The resolution would create the “Arkansas Religious Freedom Amendment.”

And the House voted 82-9 to approve SJR10. The resolution would allow lawmakers to seek a special session of the legislature with 2/3 of the signatures of the state House and Senate.

Bill to end mandatory face coverings approved in Senate

A bill that would end mandatory face-covering requirements in the state was narrowly approved in the Senate Thursday.

The bill would remove any mandatory face recovering requirement imposed by an executive order by the Governor or a department when the bill would become law.

However, the bill does not apply to any requirement set by private business or a state-owned or state-controlled healthcare facility.

The bill now goes to the Governor.

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