Arkansas legislature convenes at noon today | Arkansas Blog

Monday, January 9, 2017

Arkansas legislature convenes at noon today

Posted By on Mon, Jan 9, 2017 at 7:49 AM

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The Arkansas General Assembly convenes at noon today with a relatively modest component — 22 of 135 — of new faces, nearly all of them part of the rising Republican tide.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson's success at moderating the final product of the decisive GOP majority will be the most important story of the session. He's been remarkably moderate in the runup to the event in matters large (tax policy) and small (hot-button social issues). To date, the most important figures in legislative leadership seem to be inclined to follow his lead. In money matters, several might be even more moderate, recognizing the reality of budget balancing.

The other big story of the session is whether Donald Trump and the Republican Congress will immediately upend the Affordable Care Act, the signature achievement of Barack Obama. Obamacare is pouring tens of millions into Arkansas, and not only to provide health insurance coverage for working people of modest means. It is a vast stimulus for the private health care industry and government budget. Odds are that the money won't go away this year, but some clear guidance will be necessary before the legislature moves too aggressively on new tax cuts or new spending (the latter not much likely in the current climate.)

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette preview by Michael Wickline reflects the usual Arkansas legislative pre-occupation with hot-button symbolic issues.The most-sponsored pieces of legislation so far:

* To ban a common method of second-trimester abortions. This is intended to put the only abortion clinic in Arkansas out of business and the law is likely unconstitutional under existing court precedent, but the anti-abortion forces continue to hope for a judicial change that will open the door to more restrictive legislation against women and, eventually, the overturning of Roe v. Wade.

* To restrict food stamp use to buy food such as candy and soft drinks.  The USDA has not allowed such restrictions in the past, but, again, a new administration might take a different view. There are administrative difficulties in enforcement (what is healthy and what isn't) and the retail grocery industry can be expected to mount some resistance. Some might be sympathetic to an elderly food stamp recipient who wrote the other day of the meanness of denying him a candy bar.

It is somewhat ironic to see anti-regulation Republicans pushing hard for government regulation, but it's not new. Regulation is OK when it punishes poor people or limits women's reproductive rights or their ability to vote.

* Diverting money from settlement of the tobacco lawsuit to reduce the waiting list for those seeking government help to pay for home care for the developmentally disabled. This is tricky, worthy as more home care for the disabled is. Diversion of tobacco money means an impact on services currently being financed by that money. The nursing homes and other institutions don't like the idea of community-based services. Federal money has been available for this purpose, but the state has resisted seeking an expansion of federal dollars on the same principle that encouraged opposition to Obamacare in the first place.

The House of Representatives has installed more metal screening machines to double-check Capitol visitors before they sit in the gallery and also is hiring more security officers. The Senate is standing pat on existing security.

The media contingent apparently will be increased by at least one — the Purple Hog Times, a Twitter account described as "Official Organ of Arkansas's Equal Opportunity Muckraker Not Red or Blue Purple." It's being promoted by Rep. Nate Bell of Mena, the Republican-turned-independent, who leaves office today.

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And what would the legislature be without some free food and drinks? The session-opening free swill is at 5 p.m. at Next Level Events. The Wholesale Beer Distributors of Arkansas will be providing dinner. Legislative staff is invited, but the public is not. The ethics amendment that nominally ended free food and drink provided by lobbyists was written to provide a loophole for scheduled events to which all members of the legislature — or a committee, even — are invited. Though the entire legislature is invited to this event and the Constitution says meetings of the legislature should be open, legislative leaders have deemed these special events as falling outside the Constitution's call for open meetings.

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