LITTLE ROCK — A bill that would prohibit insurers from offering coverage for abortion through Arkansas’ health insurance exchange failed to clear a House committee Tuesday.
Another House committee endorsed a bill to ban certain sex offenders from some state park play areas. A bill to establish a new state veteran’s home passed the House and the Senate approved legislation that would let judges impose jail time and a fine for driving without a license.
House Bill 1100 by Rep. Butch Wilkins, D-Bono, received 10 "yes" votes and 7 "no" votes in the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee, falling short of the 11 votes needed for a "do pass" recommendation in the 20-member committee.
Three members of the panel, all Republicans, were absent when the vote was taken.
"We just didn’t get our people here," Wilkins said after the vote, adding that he plans to make another attempt to get the bill through the committee.
Wilkins’ bill would ban insurers from offering coverage for elective abortions through the exchange except through a separate rider with a separate premium paid with no government subsidies. It defines an elective abortion as abortion for any reason other than to prevent the death of the mother, and would not apply in a pregnancy resulting from rape or incest.
"This bill will prohibit taxpayer money from being used for abortion," Wilkins said during the committee meeting. "That’s all this bill does. It will not prevent anybody from getting an abortion if they so choose."
Bettina Brownstein, a cooperating attorney with the American Civil Liberties Union of Arkansas, spoke against the bill, saying the measure was unnecessary and the state could face a legal challenge if it becomes law.
"No federal money can be spent on any kind of abortion," Brownstein said. "Even if you don’t opt out … on the individual exchange there will be no public money to fund that coverage, no subsidy and no money.
"This bill is unnecessary to prevent funding of elective abortion," she said.
Victoria Leigh, an attorney in Little Rock, also spoke against the measure, saying it would prevent anyone with health insurance under the Affordable Health Care Act from purchasing private health insurance with their own money for a medically necessary abortion.
She also said the measure wasn’t necessary because federal and state funds are already prohibited from being used to pay for abortions.
Meanwhile, the House Judiciary Committee endorsed Senate Bill 12 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, which would prohibit Level 3 or 4 sex offenders — the two highest ratings — from visiting a swimming area or a children’s playground in a state park.
Irvin said the Legislature passed a law two years ago banning Level 3 and 4 sex offenders from city-owned water parks and said her bill would "provide consistency" because the swimming areas and playgrounds at some state parks serve as community swimming pools and playgrounds.
Arkansas State Parks asked Irvin to sponsor the bill, she said.
Lynn Gilmore, CEO of Sex Offender Solutions and Education Network, testified against the bill, saying it would prevent the families of sex offenders from enjoying the swimming areas and playgrounds at state parks.
"When are we going to stop punishing the innocent family members?" she asked.
The bill, which passed previously in the Senate, was endorsed in a voice vote. It advances to the House.
HB 1013 by Rep. John Edwards, D-Little Rock, passed in the House in a 96-0 vote and heads to the Senate. The bill calls for the creation of a new veterans’ home to replace the one in Little Rock that was closed in November because of safety and financial problems.
"I am not very proud about what I’ve seen in the last couple of years in taking care of veterans in Arkansas, and that’s why I have this bill, because I want to be a part of fixing that. And I need your help to fix that," Edwards, an Iraq War veteran, told House members.
Edwards has estimated that building a new veterans’ home would cost about $21 million. He said the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has a program under which the state would only have to pay 35 percent of the cost, with the federal department paying the rest.
Edwards’ bill does not include funding for the project. Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, has filed a bill, co-sponsored by Edwards, that would create a 14-member task force to look for funding sources and help select a location for the home.
Arkansas currently has only one veterans’ home, in Fayetteville.
The Senate Tuesday approved SB 55 by Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, which would allow a judge to sentence a person convicted of driving without a driver’s license with jail time and a fine, rather than just one or the other.
Woods said he sponsored the measure at the request of the Springdale city attorney and that the proposal would give judges more options when considering an offender’s sentence. The bill passed 34-1 and goes to the House.
The Senate also passed SB 107 by Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville, which would amend the state law concerning the operation of all-terrain vehicles by municipal employees.
Under the bill, a firefighter or an on-duty emergency medical technician would be allowed to operate an all-terrain vehicle on a public street or highway. The measure passed 35-0 and goes to the House.