UPDATE Senate OKs timber tax hike, income tax exemption


LITTLE ROCK — Bills to raise the state tax on timber land and exempt military pay from the state income tax passed the Senate on Thursday.

Without discussion, the House passed a bill which would exempt the home addresses and other personal contact information of non-elected public school employees from the state Freedom of Information Act.

House Bill 1248 by Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers, passed 89-0 and goes to the Senate.

By a 24-8 vote, the Senate approved Senate Bill 5 by Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, which would increase the state tax on timber lands from 15 cents to 20 cents per acre, beginning with assessments for the 2013 tax year.

“If you don’t produce timber you don’t pay the tax,” Sample said on the Senate floor when questioned whether the tax out affect farmers.

Sample said the 5-cent increase would raise about $700,000 a year in special revenues for maintenance, operation and improvement of the commission’s statewide program for detection, prevention and suppression of forest fires. It has Gov. Mike Beebe’s support.

The Senate voted 34-0 to pass SB 463 by Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette. It would exempt the service pay of about 6,300 active duty military personnel from the state income tax at a cost of about $7 million annually, funds the state fiscal office says the state cannot afford within Beebe’s balanced budget proposal.

Sample’s bill goes to the House, while Hendren’s bill was held in the Senate.

Senate Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said Hendren’s bill was held because the Senate and the House are still trying to work out an agreement on how the amount of tax cuts the state budget for the upcoming fiscal year, which begins July 1, can absorb. House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, has suggested up to $150 million.

The Senate on Thursday also approved SB 332 by Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, which would raise the contribution rate school districts must pay for the public school employees’ health insurance program.

Currently, he said, the minimum amount per employee is $131 a month. Under SB 322, the districts would be required to pay at least $150 a month per employee.

Key said 94 school districts currently contribute at or above $150 a month, while 15 contribute between $140-$150 a month. The rest contribute the minimum, which has remained $130 since 2004.

Key also told the Senate that schools contribute much less to employee health plans than state government does for state employees.

He said the increase would generate about $5.1 million annually.

The Senate also approved:

— SB 140 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain view, which would require school districts to participate in drills to prepare them to react to campus violence, just as they do to prepare for tornadoes and fires. The bill passed 35-0 and goes to the House.

—HB 1326 by Rep. Marshall Wright, D-Forrest City, which would allow a member of the state Parole Board, a Parole Board investigator or a parole revocation judge to carry a concealed handgun into a place where law enforcement officers are allowed to carry guns if the person has a concealed-carry permit and is on official business. The bill passed 34-0 and goes to the governor.

—HB 1410 by Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, which would allow public schools in Arkansas to offer American Sign Language as a credit-bearing language or foreign language. The bill passed 34-0 and goes to the governor.

The House voted 92-0 to approve a Senate amendment to House Concurrent Resolution 1003 by House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, which sets April 19 as the date for the end of regular business in the session and May 17 as the date for formal adjournment, or sine die.

The Senate amendment adds “any issue concerning state funded or federally funded programs” to the list of issues that lawmakers can convene to consider between April 19 and May 17. The Senate has passed a matching resolution.

In a voice vote, the House passed House Resolution 1022 by Rep. Jonathan Barnett, R-Siloam Springs, encouraging the federal government to fund, complete and maintain a 12-foot-deep channel for navigation along the Arkansas River.