The Political Animals Club hosted an "Arkansas Legislative Panel" today at the governor's mansion. Speaker of the House Robbie Wills and President Pro Tem of the Senate Bob Johnson were the honored guests. A panel discussion between the two was moderated by Bill Simmons, the political editor of the Democrat-Gazette. Topics of discussion included the animal cruelty legislation passed earlier in the session, what to do about health insurance for teachers, the grocery tax (both think it will pass) and, of course, the lottery.
Simmons asked if Lt. Gov. Halter's role in the implementation of the lottery had been overestimated. Johnson said it was important for anyone who introduces an initiative to have "skin in the game" which Halter obviously does. He went on to say that people recognize Halter as the "titular head of the Arkansas lottery," but once the initiative passed the responsibility to set it up shifted to the legislature. Wills agreed.
Both answered criticism that plans for the lottery were devised as part of a "back-room deal." "If this was a back-room deal," Johnson said, "then what we're releasing today wouldn't be a draft, but the actual bill." Wills said that everyone will have input on the legislation. The speaker was no doubt responding to criticism by some (including here) that lottery vendors had seen some of the "language" of the bill before the public or even a majority of those in the legislature.
Johnson said he expects "less of a food fight than what the media and others have predicted" when the first half of the draft bill is presented during a joint meeting of the House Rules Committee and the Senate State Agencies Committee later today (2:30 in the Old Supreme Court Room at the capitol). The meeting is open to the public.
The two legislators also talked about what could be done to help teachers pay for increasing health insurance costs. Wills noted up-front that both of his parents were public school teachers. He said if the legislature could not solve the problem with teachers' health insurance, then good teachers would simply leave the state. "We're going to see how our revenue holds up and try to deal with this issue" in order to help current and retired teachers. When Simmons asked if Wills was willing to concede that nothing might happen in this session, Wills was reluctant to go that far. "It's a goal," he said, "and we're going to find a solution to stop the bleeding." Johnson said he wasn't sure the legislature would be able to act on the issue before the session ends. "Outside of tracking down some federal stimulus money, I'm not sure we can do it," he said.
When asked about cutting the grocery tax, Wills said he was confident they could find the 51 votes needed in the House and scraping those votes together would be much easier than finding the 75 required for the passage of the cigarette tax. He did say, however, that reducing taxes would depend on the economic environment. "We want to take the time to review our fiscal situation when we get the latest information," Wills said. "Then we'll go from there."