UPDATE House passes school-choice bill; Senate OKs proposed unemployment restrictions


LITTLE ROCK — A bill to replace Arkansas’ stricken school-choice law narrowly passed the House on Monday, while the Senate approved bills to require drug testing for unemployment beneficiaries and to reduce the maximum weekly unemployment check.

The Senate also approved school choice legislation.

The one that passed the House, Senate Bill 65 by Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, was initially approved on a 57-8 vote, but members then asked to sound the ballot, a procedure in which every member must be in his or her seat to be counted. In the second count the bill passed on a 54-8 vote.

The bill needed 51 votes to pass in the 100-member House. It goes to the Senate for concurrence in a House amendment.

The measure would eliminate race as a factor in student transfers between school districts. It also would cap the number of transfers allowed from one district in a year to no more than 3 percent of the district’s student population. A district that is under a desegregation order could not approve a transfer that would conflict with the order. Transfers approved before the law takes effect would be exempt.

The bill is a response to a federal judge’s ruling last year that the state’s 1989 school choice-law is unconstitutional because of a provision based on race.

Rep. Homer Lenderman, D-Brookland, spoke against the bill, saying an appeal of the decision that struck down the 1989 law has not been ruled on by the 8th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in St. Louis.

Lenderman also said some schools would be forced to close if the bill becomes law.

“If you’ve got 4,000 students in a school district, it’s not hard to do the math. That’s 120 students who could transfer without cause (with a loss in state funding of) $6,200 apiece,” he said.

Rep. Mark Biviano, R-Searcy, spoke for the bill, addressing concerns some have raised that the state would be sued if the bill becomes law.

“It’s always a common argument that we’re going to get in litigation. We can be sued over anything and everything. Let’s not let that be (a reason for) fear to give our children some choice here,” he said.

The Senate passed House Bill 1294 by Rep. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, 33-1. Under the bill, a student approved for transfer to a non-resident district under a provision of law that is later struck down or repealed would be allowed to finish school in the new district, and any present or future sibling could transfer to the district as well.

The bill now goes to the governor.

Unemployment benefits

The Senate passed SB 38 on a 25-5 vote. The bill by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, would mandate random drug testing for applicants and recipients of unemployment benefits. Those who fail a drug test would be denied or would lose jobless benefits.

Hutchinson said a requirement to receive unemployment is to be actively looking for a job. Hopefully, his bill would serve as a deterrent against using drugs for job seekers, he said.

“If you can’t pass a drug test, you typically can’t get employed and thereby, I would argue, you are not actively seeking employment,” he said.

The random drug testing would cost the state Department of Workforce Service less than $30,000 annually, Hutchinson said.

SB 875 by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, passed 19-12. It would lower the maximum weekly unemployment benefit by $126 — from $451 to $325. Hester said the change would put Arkansas’ jobless benefit in line with surrounding states.

“The intent here is to find a happy medium between the people that need it and fairness to the business owners and their employees,” Hester said.

He said the reduction would take effect after the state pays off more than $200 million it owes the federal government for unemployment insurance, which is expected to occur by 2015.

The state owes the federal government for money it borrowed to keep unemployment benefits flowing to thousands of out-of-work Arkansans during the recession. The current balance is down from $360 million.

In an effort to address the debt, the Legislature in 2011 approved and Gov. Mike Beebe signed into law Act 861. The law capped maximum unemployment benefits and cut the benefit period by a week. It also eliminated wage indexing and changed some of the eligibility requirements for workers seeking unemployment.

“This is a horrible bill,” said Sen. David Burnett, D-Osceola, speaking against SB 875. “It reduces unemployment benefits by $100 a week for people that can barely feed their families.”

Burnett noted that the Senate had just minutes earlier passed SB 38, “which places a further indignity on people of out of work by implying that they may be drug users, by implying that since you are so low down the totem pole that you don’t have a job so we’re going to drug test you before we give you whatever measly amount we’re going to.”

“Everybody in this chamber ought to be ashamed if you vote for this,” he said.

Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, reminded lawmakers that the people receiving unemployment benefits were not fired, but were laid off because their place of employment either down-sized or went out of business.

“They didn’t do anything ,” she said. “This is not the right thing to do for the people in our state,” she said.

Both unemployment-related bills go to the House.

Other bills

HB 1478 by Rep. Walls McCrary, D-Lonoke, which deals with capturing, transporting and killing feral hogs, passed the Senate 34-1. Under the bill, a person could capture or kill a feral hog on his or her own land or on public land if given permission and if all applicable state or federal laws are followed. A captured feral hog could be transported to a facility for slaughter but could not be released into the wild.

The bill goes to the governor.

The Senate also passed, 24-6, HB 2204 Rep. Gary Deffenbaugh, R-Van Buren, which would require a school board to review any increase in a school district employee’s salary of 5 percent or more. The bill goes to the governor.

The House voted 89-0 to approve HB 1329 by Rep. Andrea Lea, R-Russellville, which would reduce the fee to obtain a permit to carry a concealed handgun from $100 to $50 for people age 65 or older. In its original form the bill would have reduced the fee for all applicants, but after the House rejected that version Lea amended it to limit its scope. The bill goes to the Senate.

In a 90-0 vote, the House approved SB 225 by Sen. Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, which would prohibit the names of juveniles involved in motor vehicle accidents from being released to the public. The bill goes to the Senate for concurrence in a House amendment.

The House voted 73-0 to approve SB 838 by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, which would increase the size of the state Board of Finance and expand the panel’s oversight of state investments by the treasurer’s office. The board also would be allowed to decide who works at several important positions in the treasurer’s office, and would detail a series of required procedures for various investments handled by the state treasurer. The bill goes to the governor.