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Tort reform returns 

Also, cuts on the horizon and a bad bill killed.

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Quote of the Week:

"We are unable to have anyone in the office because of recent threats that we have had."

— A staffer at U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton's Little Rock office last week, speaking through a closed door to local Democratic organizer Sarah Scanlon and four other citizens seeking an audience with Cotton's staff. Meanwhile, in Springdale, Cotton's team abruptly canceled a meeting with the group Ozark Indivisible without explanation, sparking a protest outside his field office. On Thursday, Cotton reversed course: The senator called Ozark Indivisible organizer Caitlynn Moses to apologize and agreed to host a town hall later this month to hear constituent concerns.

Tort reform returns

A proposed amendment to the Arkansas Constitution filed last week in the Senate seeks to limit the amounts that can be awarded to claimants in civil actions, such as medical malpractice lawsuits. If Senate Joint Resolution 8 is approved by the General Assembly — and with a long list of co-sponsors, it seems likely to pass — it would appear before voters on the 2018 ballot. Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View) is the lead sponsor.

Like the so-called "tort reform" measure on the 2016 ballot (which was disqualified by the state Supreme Court not long before the election), SJR 8 would place a cap of $250,000 on noneconomic damages, meaning compensation for hard-to-quantify personal losses such as pain and suffering. The proposed amendment also places a cap on punitive damages, though that ceiling is more flexible. But SJR 8 also would give the legislature control over the rules of pleading, practice and procedure in the judicial branch, thus taking power away from Arkansas courts and giving it to the General Assembly.

Cuts on the horizon?

Governor Hutchinson told reporters last week that he's asked state agencies to prepare for the possibility of budget cuts, including the Department of Human Services, the Department of Education and the Department of Correction. The state's fiscal stewards are antsy about the fact that net available revenue is below forecast by $57.1 million to date. It's too soon to panic — there are five months left in the fiscal year and officials say part of the shortfall will likely be recouped next month — but it's worth asking why Republican leaders keep talking more tax cuts. (Hutchinson just signed a new $50 million cut for low-income Arkansans, though that won't go into effect for a few years.) The governor said he'll make a decision in a few months about whether to make budget changes.

Obsession

The legislature is considering several proposals to amend the state Constitution, most of them bad: tort reform, voter ID, changes to education oversight. But the most absurd surely belongs to Sen. Jason Rapert (R-Conway), who filed a joint resolution trying to stop gay couples from getting married. Didn't the U.S. Supreme Court put an end to that fight with its 2015 decision allowing same-sex marriage nationwide? Well, yes — which is why Rapert wants to call a convention of the states to add an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that would define marriage as "the union of one man and one woman." Good luck, senator.

A bad bill killed

Rep. Brandt Smith's bill to "prohibit sanctuary policies at state-supported institutions of higher education" failed by a voice vote Tuesday in the House Education committee. Smith's effort appears to be dead.  Smith's bill would have served as a cudgel to enforce federal immigration policy by way of withholding state funding from colleges and universities. The Arkansans who would have been most likely to be affected were undocumented immigrants (most of them Latino) who came to the United States as children and are now attending college in the state. A large number of demonstrators opposing the bill gathered at the committee meeting.  Smith's argument, such as it was, was that pernicious radicals would force campuses to adopt policies that violated federal law. "This is directed at the radical, fringe anarchist types," he said. He said he wanted to "protect the decent types at campuses." Smith said that he was worried that Arkansas campuses would turn into the University of California, Berkeley. Smith also said he was worried that rogue professors would hide undocumented immigrants in their offices, feed them and then carry their human waste out and dump it on campus. 

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