Bills show GOP majority’s agenda emerging


LITTLE ROCK — The new Republican majority at the state Capitol has begun rolling out pieces of its agenda for the session, with members filing bills on topics ranging from state spending and abortion to tort reform and charter schools.

“For 138 years we have been governed in both chambers of our Legislature by a single party, Today, we as Republicans are offering Arkansas an alternative to the status quo,” says the Republican House Caucus’ website.

But with a Democrat still in the governor’s office and Republicans holding just a slim majority in the House — 51 seats out of 100 — getting that agenda passed could be a challenge.

Last spring, the Republican House Caucus unveiled its agenda for 2013, correctly anticipating gaining GOP majorities in the House and Senate in the November elections after significant gains in 2010.

Several of the proposals discussed then have emerged in bill form in the opening days of the 89th General Assembly, including HB 1037 by Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, which would ban abortions after 20 weeks; and HB 1040, which would create a state Public Charter School Commission independent of the state Department of Education.

Also, House Bill 1041 by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, would set a cap on year-to-year growth in state spending.

Mayberry filed a bill seeking to ban abortions after 20 weeks in 2011, but the bill died in a House committee.

Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forest, who was a House member when the House GOP formulated its agenda, has filed another component of the GOP agenda, Senate Bill 2, which would require voters to show a photo ID at the polls.

A similar bill that King filed in 2011 passed in the House but died in a Senate committee.

Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Benton, has filed SB 38, which would require drug testing for people who apply for and receive unemployment benefits. Westerman, the House majority leader, said Republican House members had been planning to introduce similar legislation, but now that Hutchinson’s bill has been filed they likely will back his instead.

Hutchinson also has filed Senate Joint Resolution 2, which would amend the state constitution to require that a person who files a lawsuit deemed to be frivolous pay the other party’s attorney fees; require that an expert witness in a medical malpractice lawsuit be trained in the same or similar discipline as the person on trial or have similar education and experience; and require that an attorney who files a medical malpractice suit file a “certificate of good faith” stating that a medical expert is ready to testify that medical malpractice occurred.

Westerman said tort reform is part of the House Republicans’ agenda, but he had not studied SJR 2 enough to say whether it lined up with what they had in mind.

Still to come, Westerman said, is a proposal to restructure the state income tax code. A few other tax-cutting bills have been filed, but Westerman said the issue of taxes will be tackled in earnest “later in the session, when we understand better where we are on the budget.”

Also coming are proposals for making the state Medicaid program sustainable, Westerman said. He said he was not ready to give specifics of upcoming bills, but ideas that legislators have floated include creating Medicaid co-payments and drug-testing Medicaid beneficiaries, as well as unspecified measures aimed at eliminating waste, fraud and abuse.

A measure also is in the works to bring legislative oversight to the state’s use of revenue from fees, licenses and legal settlements, Westerman said. A bill along those lines was filed in 2011 by then-Rep. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, but eventually was referred to interim study.

Even though several of the measures that Republicans have introduced or are preparing to introduce have failed previously, Westerman said he feels good about the chances of a significant number of them becoming law in this session.

“I’m very confident,” he said. “It is a different group of leadership in both chambers of the Legislature now. I think the priorities may have shifted.”

A spokesman for Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe said the governor has concerns about some of the Republican-sponsored bills that have surfaced, including the proposals to set a cap on spending growth and create a commission on charter schools.

Asked about the possibility of measures passing in the Legislature but being vetoed, Westerman said he did not expect that to happen because Beebe has a history of using the veto power sparingly and “respecting the work of the Legislature,” having served in the Senate for 20 years.

Any veto that Beebe issued might not stand anyway, he said.

“For both chambers to pass a bill and him veto it, that might unify both chambers to override the veto, since it only takes a simple majority,” Westerman said.

The GOP holds a 21-14 majority in the Senate.

House Minority Leader Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, said he hopes to see Democrats and Republicans work together on many issues during the session, but he said he has seen a number of bills filed by Republicans that he cannot support, including the proposals to cap spending growth, require voters to show photo ID and require drug-testing of applicants for and recipients of unemployed benefits.

“I don’t think they’ll get everything they want,” he said. “They do obviously have a majority in both chambers and so that increases their odds, but Democrats are going to continue to create jobs, strengthen our schools, work to do things for our veterans and work to pursue tax reform — and I think on a lot of that you’re going to see some bipartisan cooperation.”