House OKs $10 million tax cut; Senate rejects school choice bill


LITTLE ROCK — The House on Monday approved a $10 million tax exemption for the agriculture industry.

A bill to require school districts to honor future transfers by the siblings of students who changed districts under a stricken school choice law narrowly failed in the Senate.

House Bill 1039 by Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, D-Warren, passed the House 90-0 and goes to the Senate. It would create a tax exemption for utilities on certain agricultural, horticultural and aquacultural structures and equipment, including commercial chicken houses.

“This bill would directly benefit 56 counties of this state because it’s going to help every one of our poultry farmers,” Wardlaw told House members.

The Beebe administration opposes the tax cut, which is not part of Gov. Mike Beebe’s balanced budget proposal. House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, has said he supports passing up to $150 million in tax cuts this session.

The House also approved HB 1690 by Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, which would require a minute of silence at the beginning of each school day in Arkansas public schools. Students could use the time to pray, reflect or engage in other quiet activity.

The bill passed 79-4 and goes to the Senate.

The Senate rejected HB 1294 by Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, a school-choice bill that would allow a student approved for transfer to a non-resident district under a provision of law that is later struck down or repealed to finish school in the new district. It also would allow current and future siblings of the student to attend the receiving district.

The vote was 17-6, with 18 votes needed for passage.

Last year, a federal judge struck down Arkansas’ school choice law, ruling that race-based restrictions in the law violated the equal-protection clause of the Constitution. The decision is on appeal.

Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, asked Monday if Hammer’s bill could be viewed as “ammunition for those who want (the Legislature) to wait” on addressing the school choice issue until after a ruling by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

Key and Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, have filed separate bills to address the school choice issue. Both those measures are currently before the Senate Education Committee.

Higher education director

The Senate passed SB 812 by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, which would change the job description of the director of the Arkansas Department of Higher Education. The bill passed 26-2 and goes to the House.

The law now requires, among other things, that the director have experience as a teacher on a college campus. Hutchinson’s bill would change the law to require the director to “demonstrate competence” in agency management or related skills.

Hutchinson said management skills are key to the job. He said the current requirement of experience in education is unnecessary and has driven up the cost of hiring a qualified candidate.

Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, spoke against the bill. In 2011, English sought an attorney general’s opinion on whether Gov. Mike Beebe followed the law in recommending interim Higher Education Director Shane Broadway get the job permanently.

The attorney general said that because Broadway did not have experience as an educator on a college campus was not qualified for the position.

Voter ID bill delayed

Meanwhile, the number of votes needed to approve legislation to require voters to show photo identification at the polls came into question again Monday.

Senate Bill 2 has passed the Senate and the House and was back in the Senate for concurrence in a House amendment Monday when Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, sought a ruling on whether the measure originally needed a simple majority or two-thirds majority vote to pass the Senate. The bill was referred to the Senate Rules Committee, which will consider the question Tuesday.

The House Rules Committee last week rejected a House member’s argument that the bill would alter voter registration requirements in the state constitution and, therefore, required a two-thirds vote in both chambers for approval. The House then passed the measure 51-44, with no votes to spare. The bill previously passed the Senate 23-12, one vote shy of a two-thirds majority.

Court fund

Also Monday, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, asked that his SB 838, which would restructure the office of the state treasurer, be sent back to the Senate Insurance and Commerce Committee for an amendment.

He told reporters later his amendment would require only the office’s investment officer to report directly to an expanded state Board of Finance.

Other bills that passed in the House on Monday included:

—HB 1366 by Hammer, which would require that the Court Reporters Fund, the Trial Court Administrative Assistants Fund and the Arkansas District Judges Council receive priority in distributions from the state Administration of Justice Fund. The bill passed 93-0 and goes to the governor.

—HB 1503 by Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, which would make it a Class D felony to provide false information to a gun dealer or private seller in order to procure a firearm or ammunition. The bill is part of the National Rifle Association’s legislative package and is designed to prevent gun-control activists from conducting sting operations not sanctioned by law enforcement. The bill passed 78-1 and goes to the Senate.

—HB 1708 by Rep. Prissy Hickerson, R-Texarkana, which would make possession of body armor during the commission of certain felonies, or after conviction of certain felonies, a Class D felony. The offense is currently a Class A misdemeanor. The bill passed 81-0 and goes to the Senate.