LITTLE ROCK, Ark. – The full Arkansas legislature convened for the 2018 Fiscal Session Monday in the capital city.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson delivered an optimistic State of the State address, telling lawmakers, “The state of our state is stronger than ever before.”
Hutchinson recapped the state’s past successes and reminded the legislature of his priorities in the $5.6 billion budget he proposed for the coming year, including funding for the state’s Medicaid expansion program, higher education and public safety.
The governor also challenged lawmakers to reduce state’s top income tax bracket from 6.9 to 6 percent during the 2019 General Session.
“Businesses can relocate, individuals can relocate, but the true motivation for tax reform is to do the best for the people of Arkansas,” he told them.
St. Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville, called the announcement a “big win.” He said figuring out how to make the cuts to pay for the tax break will not be easy, but he and his colleagues should lay the groundwork for future changes during the fiscal session by keeping the budget “as tight as possible.”
“It’s one of the things we can do that puts money directly in the pockets of Arkansans,” Ballinger said. “I love it.”
St. Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, was not among the group of lawmakers who stood and applauded Hutchinson’s challenge.
“We can’t cut taxes into prosperity,” she said. “That’s never worked. Everyone would like a tax cut, even me, but I don’t want it over people having health care.”
Deciding whether to fund the state’s Medicaid expansion is a top priority for the legislature.
Sen. Elliott is concerned about getting the three-fourths vote in the Senate since her chamber is down three Republicans.
“I would hope that won’t become the reason why we don’t pass the budget for Arkansas Works,” she said. “For people in Arkansas, to have health care is definitely a better choice than not having healthcare, regardless of the initial expense.”
One of her colleagues in the House believes the topic will take up a lot of energy but not a lot of time.
“See if it’s going to pass and if it’s not going to pass, then when there’s a full Senate they’ll come back and try to do it again,” Rep. Ballinger said. “What I haven’t heard is anybody who would want to block it what they’re asking for. I’m not sure what the fight is about, but if someone has an idea for conservative reform, I’m all there. I’ll support it.”
Some of the issues that could take up more time and energy are a handful of non-appropriation bills, which need a two-thirds vote from both chambers to be considered.
One of the bills filed Monday would impose rules and regulations on pharmacy benefit managers (PBMs), who pharmacists across the state blame for cuts to their reimbursement rates.
“People really can’t wait to find out whether their pharmacies are going to close,” Elliott said.
“Legislation we passed last year, should that have time to work through?,” Ballinger asked. “I don’t know the answer to that. We’ll see how that develops.”
Rep. Ballinger filed legislation that would fix a requirement that currently mandates all concealed carry instructors must also teach enhanced carry or lose their certification.
“It’s just cleanup,” he said. “We do cleanup in the fiscal sessions on a regular basis.”
But Elliott disagrees.
“It makes sense to do some things here during the fiscal session if it’s something that’s a non-controversial issue,” she said. “I don’t think this is one of those.”
Another non-appropriation bill filed would prohibit guns from dorm rooms.
If lawmakers decide these topics are not appropriate to take up during the fiscal session, they would more than likely go into a special session immediately following the fiscal to address these issues.
The same could happen if they can’t get the three-fourths vote to pass Arkansas Works.
Other budget issues lawmakers expect to debate include funding for parole and probation officers and UAMS.