Lawmakers talk session | Arkansas Blog

Lawmakers talk session

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In a Q-and-A as entertaining as it was informative, incoming Speaker of the House Robbie Wills and incoming Senate President Pro Tem Bob Johnson met with reporters this afternoon at the Arkansas Press Association to discuss the upcoming legislative session. Gov. Mike Beebe followed to answer questions.

On the table for the session: establish a board to run the lottery and to determine how scholarships from lottery proceeds will be distributed. Raise the state tax on cigarettes to pay for a trauma system. Continue to slash the grocery tax. Pass animal cruelty legislation and try to pass the Equal Rights Amendment.

Oh, and one more thing: tear down the Little Rock Zoo.
The last proposal is Johnson's brainchild, but zoo lovers can rest easy. After a tangent about the unpopularity of the "dated, landlocked zoo," the use of its land for a research corridor, and the possibility of a new statewide animal pen, Johnson stated that he wasn't going to waste his time on the issue in the session. Nonetheless, all were amused by the performance and impressed by the incoming Senate President Pro Tem's ability to play up to his cantankerous reputation.

Johnson was more serious on other matters, including his contention that the three-strike system for drug offenders in Arkansas should be reevaluated.

Speaking with Wills, he addressed the lottery and discussed why its implementation will be the most challenging issue facing the legislature this session.

There will be two parts to the process: establishing a board to run the lottery, and deciding how to distribute the scholarship money the lottery creates.

Wills and Johnson said they were "99 percent agreed" on the first issue: they want a quasi-independent board to run the lottery. Still, a number of questions remain. What will the board look like? Will its members be paid? And, of course, any agreement between Wills and Johnson will have to go through the House and Senate.

The matter of how scholarships will be apportioned is fuzzier, though Johnson and Beebe each said the money should be distributed centrally, not through colleges and universities. Beebe also said he expected the current scholarship system to be simplified, though he was unsure how.

Beebe's top priorities for the session -- cutting a cent off the grocery tax, balancing the budget, improving education -- were hardly surprising. But he did offer one novel proposal: an increase on the state cigarette tax in order to pay for a trauma system.

Johnson was noncommittal on the issue, though he expressed concern that a tax based on an uncertain revenue source -- it would only be collected if people continue to smoke -- would be too risky. Beebe, however, cited a figure that he said accounted for a possible decrease in smoking were the tax be implemented: based on a fifty-cent-per-pack tax, the state could collect $71 million annually.

And that's assuming the tax is fifty cents. Beebe said he thought the tax may actually need be higher.

$71 million is more than the $28 million Beebe estimated the trauma system to cost. The $43 million surplus from the tax, Beebe explained to John Brummett after the Q-and-A, would be spent on Medicaid.

Also on the table will be a bill against animal cruelty and another stab at passing the Equal Rights Amendment. Both Johnson and Wills gave the former a good shot. Though Wills said he is in favor of the Equal Rights Amendment -- 'I'm married' -- he wasn't so sure about its chances. Johnson was less equivocal. No, he doesn't think it will pass. No, he doesn't support it. Why not? Johnson: "The better question is, 'Why yes?'"

Gov. Beebe did not comment on the Equal Rights Amendment, but he did voice support for the zoo.

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