By ROB MORITZ
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — Lawmakers shed tears, claimed threats and passionately debated tax cuts and other hot issues last week, a clear sign the Legislature finally kicked into high gear last week.
"I think the session began today," House Speaker Robert S. Moore Jr. told reporters Wednesday amid palpable tension that lingered after a pitched House debate over three tax-cut bills Republican-led supporters passed despite dire warnings from Gov. Mike Beebe.
In its seventh week, the 88th General Assembly could slip into overdrive this week as tax cuts take center stage in the Senate and other measures, including immigration reform and a bill to mandate seat belts in school buses, get hearings.
Against-the-grain legislation that would raise taxes to help fund state highway improvements and measures to help ease prison overcrowding could make their debut this week. Also, House and Senate committees will begin arduous reviews of 25 proposed constitutional amendments. Up to three can be referred by the Legislature to voters in the 2012 general election.
Moore said he expects "spirited" debates.
"But I think we’re all committed to favorable resolutions as we deal with solving problems facing the state of Arkansas and providing services that our citizens expect and demand and deserve," he said.
Today, the Senate Revenue and Tax Committee is expected to consider two Senate tax-cut bills.
Senate Bill 276 by Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, encompassing Beebe’s proposal to reduce the state sales tax on groceries by one-half percent to 1.5 cents. The revenue loss from the tax cut is estimated at $15 million annually, the revenue reduction the governor says the state can afford this year.
The panel also will consider SB 274 by Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, which would double the sales tax exemption on used vehicles from $2,500 to $5,000, at a cost to the state of about $7 million a year.
Teague, who is chairman of the Senate tax committee, said he expects the Senate tax bills, along with the three passed by the House last week, to receive a fair and spirited debate by the panel.
"I’ve said all along that we will hear any bills that people want to bring and that hasn’t changed," he said last week. "We won’t hold them. We’ll do them when they want to do them."
Teague said the three House tax measure could come before his Committee as early as Wednesday.
The proposals, which would lop more than $60 million from the state budget over the next two years, include House Bill 1052 by Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, which would reduce the sales tax on manufacturers’ utilities by one-half percent, and HB 1056 by Rep. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayetteville. It would amend the low-income exemption to the state income tax to include a head of household with two or more dependents.
The most contentious of the three is HB 1002 by Rep. Ed Garner, R-Maumelle, to eliminate the capital gains tax on profits from the sale of property and companies acquired in Arkansas after July 1 and possessed for at least a year.
Garner fought off an attempt to derail his bill on the House floor, broke down in tears afterward and alleged that some co-sponsors of the measure were prodded to withdraw their support under threat.
On Tuesday, the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee is scheduled to begin hearing presentations on Senate proposals to amendment the state constitution. The panel’s House counterpart is to begin reviewing House proposals on Wednesday.
Also Tuesday, the Senate Transportation Committee is to consider HB 1294 by Rep. Hank Wilkins, D-Pine Bluff, which would require all school buses in the state to be fitted with seat belts by 2013.
Wilkins, who 10 years ago successfully sponsored a bill that mandated seat belts for a driver and front seat passenger, pushed a bill through the House last week that would require passengers in the back seat to buckle up. That bill is expected to come before the Senate Transportation Committee this week.
The Senate Judiciary Committee is expected to consider a number of bills Tuesday, including ones that would give the attorney general subpoena powers and prohibit state courts from considering foreign law in deciding state cases.
SB 300 by Sen. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, which would allow the attorney general’s office to issue an administrative subpoena to get companies or individuals to provide information to a state or local agency about an investigated individual.
SB 97 by Sen. Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers, has already been before the Judiciary Committee once and it was pulled after concerns were raised that it would hinder Arkansas companies doing business with foreign firms.
Bledsoe, who said the measure was intended to preserve rights granted under the U.S. and state constitutions, pulled the bill and said she would amend it to address concerns raised by the committee.
Also Wednesday, the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee is to consider HB 1292 by Rep. Jon Hubbard, R-Jonesboro, which would deny state services to undocumented immigrants except in emergencies or when life-saving measures required.
The proposal is similar to a bill filed two years ago which would have denied state services to illegals over the age of 13. That measure failed in the Legislature and its backers, members of the conservative grassroots group Secure Arkansas, failed to collect enough signatures to get the proposal on the November general election ballot.
On Thursday, the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee is to consider HB 1013 by Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood, which would give the state Contractors Licensing Board authority to revoke or suspend the licenses of contractors who knowingly employee people who are not in the country legally — an authority the board says it does not want.