UPDATE: The short form of events below is that it appears the governor’s preferred highway bill is headed to passage along with the rest of his special session agenda, though several items drew some impassioned, if fruitless, oppositon.
The House has approved Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s highway spending plan 75-12 and that sets up another run by Sen. Bart Hester to get the governor’s preferred plan to a Senate committee willing to approve it.
Yesterday, the Senate Transportation Committee refused Hutchinson’s plan to pay for highways the next five years with unallocated general revenues. (I’ve been calling this surplus, but it’s surplus only because of low budgeting of revenue, particularly a huge increase thanks to Obamacare, so as to set aside a slush fund for highways.) Sen. Jimmy Hickey and others who prefer a long-term solution to highway money — meaning a tax increase that the governor won’t accept — were roadblocks in the Transportation Committee. Their compromise short-term alternative is a one-year cap on Hutchinson’s free lunch highway program, with another look at long-term solutions in 2017.
Hester, who is sponsoring the governor’s bill, will try again to get the legislation moved to a friendlier committee, Revenue and Taxation. He couldn’t muster the majority vote to get that yesterday, but some non-voting members should give him the votes he needs today. The House passage of the governor’s bill with a big margin should be some impetus.
The Senate has passed Hickey’s bill with the bare minimum 18 votes. Will all those hold AGAINST governor’s bill, both on committee assignment and a subsequent floor vote? This legislative drama is made on an issue that, in the end, will mostly perpetuate the status quo.
Either bill will use $50 million in general revenue to produce $200 million in federal matching money the first year.
The vote to send Hester’s bill to Revenue and Taxation was approved 19-14. The odds are this reflects a vote on the bill itself. Shortly after the Senate adjourned for the week, the committee reported the governor’s bill out with a “do pass,” setting it up for final passage on Monday. Hickey’s bill died for lack of a motion to approve it in House committee.
All this means the session should end Monday as planned in three days, with passage of everything on the governor’s call except a merger of the Crowley’s Ridge and East Arkansas two-year colleges, a divisive local issue. On other topics:
Sen. Stephanie Flowers delivered a stem-winder of a speech today about passing Sen. David Burnett’s bill to let a local government give a waiver from earthquake design standards for manufacturing facilities, a bill aimed at reducing the cost for a Nucor steel mill expansion. Structural engineers have opposed the bill. Flowers said the legislature shouldn’t respond to claims that the company should move elsewhere. Let them move, she said, noting the danger of the New Madrid fault. “Do we not value human life?” She was countered by Sen. Jim Hendren calling for “reasonable” standards and against “burdensome regulations.” It’s important to economic development, he said. The bill passed 30-1 and four not voting. It was approved by a similar margin in the House.
The train also got rolling on the governor’s so-called “efficiency” bill that abolishes some minor agencies and puts others — Governors Mansion, Building Authority, History Commission — firmly under his control. It’s a 105-page bill and Sen. Linda Chesterfield objected to the hurried consideration. “This is a regular session and you know it is,” she said.
“This is too large a bill to be considered in this session,” she said. “We’re going to substitute expediency for good policy.”
Sen. Joyce Elliott agreed it was bad policy to handle the bill this way. But she said she had yet to receive an explanation about the urgency. She said working people had no opportunity to “have their say.” She was particularly concerned about the end of authority for the History Commission and transfer of its total control to the director of the Department of Arkansas Heritage. She objected to the bill’s release on the morning of the day it was run through committee.
Sen. Keith Ingram said he was “troubled” by the History Commission transer. But he also noted that the bill strips out the Mansion Committee’s ability to govern changes to the mansion. This commission has served this state for many years without a problem, he said. “If there’s a problem I wish they’d brought it to us.” He said there’s nothing that would be harmed by waiting until January.
Sen. Missy Irvin, a sponsor, said it was an emergency to save money. Estimates have been that all the changes might save $1 million. The bill was adopted 21-9, with four not voting.