The legislature today — highway money, damage suits, body arts | Arkansas Blog

The legislature today — highway money, damage suits, body arts

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HIGHWAY RAID ROLL CALL
  • HIGHWAY RAID ROLL CALL
Lots happening on many fronts at the Capitol today.

* HIGHWAY RAID ON GENERAL REVENUE FAILS IN COMMITTEE: The highway industry bill to divert sales tax on vehicle sales from general revenue to road construction failed on a roll call vote in the House Transportation Committee this morning. More to come from David Ramsey. Needing 11 votes, the bill got 10 (9 Republicans and one Democrat). Rep. Jonathan Barnett, the Republican who's lead sponsor, lamented that the bill had become partisan. No wonder. Gov. Beebe opposes it for one thing. For another, you have Republicans leading a raid on general revenue soon to be depleted by an aggressive round of tax cutting proposed by Republicans. They want to starve higher education and other elements of govenrment, while allowing highway contractors to feast (and cities and counties which would share in an enormous windfall of $100 million a year that need not even be spent on roads.)

Highway Commissioner Robert Moore (not Highway director Scott Bennett, as I wrote originally) apparently had people slapping their heads with one of his comments today. To those who said the taking of general revenue would rob Peter to pay Paul, Moore seemed to suggest that a reduction in money elsewhere wouldn't be such a big deal in places such as education and health care. Tweeted David Ramsey:

He said quality of staff and other efficiency relevant in those but hiways are only improved via money.

Here's a fuller extract of the quote by Moore:

"Unlike the other three major components that the state government is responsible for...each of those, certainly money is vital and very important. But the end result of those three—healthcare, education, safety—is dependent upon more than the influx of dollars. It's how those dollars are applied. The...skills of our very dedicated administrators in our school system, the correctional system, and the healthcare system [partly determines] how we proceed to be successful in those. That's not true in highways. There's only one thing that builds highways. That's money. The prudent and efficient use of dollars to buy the asphalt, buy the concrete, pay the laborer, buy the machinery to lay that asphalt and concrete, then to maintain it."

UPDATE: David Ramsey says proponents hammered on business growth and the importance of highways in tourism. Robert Moore said needs were great and businesses wouldn't locate here if highways aren't well maintained. The advocates also noted that the bill had been amended to protect revenues dedicated to the education trust fund.

Moore acknowledged the problem of taking money from general revenue at a time when tax cuts are on the table. He said that he wished that they had gotten everyone at the table together to figure out how to share general revenue. He said that doing so would show that "we don't have the ability to cut taxes right now. We have obligations that we have to pay for."

Afterward, Rep. Barnett said he wasn't sure if he'd try the bill again this session and emphasized higher education concerns about the bill. He referred to them in closing for his bill:

"Some of these people back here, they have some other ways to get revenue. They raise tuition. I know that's not popular...a lot of them get a lot of donations. A lot of nice dormitories. I know there are a lot of universities in this state that need a lot of help and don't have it but some of these campuses actually have some pretty nice facilities."

Barnett talked to reporters afterward.

He acknowledged that other pending bills with major revenue impacts may have colored the thinking on this bill, but he insisted that since the bill phased in new general revenue support for highways the intent was to avoid harm to education funding.

"That gas tax doesn't work anymore, it hasn't for quite some time...There's competition for future revenue streams obviously, you saw that here today. The highway department doesn't have a lot of options. they have to come to the legislature and ask for help. I tried to represent that today."

"It didn't help that the governor's office was involved. He has the right to do that. He had a lot of people here today. There's a lot of state agencies that are competing for that same revenue growth. Maybe there'll be another day that we have this conversation again soon, I hope so....[governor's involvement] obviously made a difference. Most of these people in this room signed on to my bill originally...the influence from the governor's office changed that."

* TORT DEFORM: A Senate committee is discussing the chamber of commerce-written constitutional amendment by Sen. Eddie Joe Williams to strip the Supreme Court of rule-making authority in damage cases. The amendment, along with planned legislation, would hamper damage lawsuits in many other ways. Note from testimony this morning from an opponent of the measure:

Sen. Thompson just pointed out that Sen. Williams' bill could allow the legislature to potentially eliminate all non-economic and punitive damages in Arkansas. Their side conceded it was a possibility.

What a wonderful world for big business that would be.

No votes today. Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson also presented his competing proposal, with some recapture of some elements of tort reform legislation lost in previous court rulings, but not all that the chamber hopes for.

* BODY ART: Sen. Missy Irvin's nanny state bill to curb types of so-called body modification (beyond tattoos) cleared a House committee today. But the legislation was amended to remove the bans on scarification and dermal implants. Regulation, rather than bans, seemed to meet the approval of some people who do the work.

* SCHOOL CHOICE: The House Education Committee talked again about a school choice bill, HB 1507, this one to allow transfers from districts in academic distress as well as continuing school choice options but retaining potential resegregation as a factor to consider in evaluating choice applications. The Walton lobby doesn't like the bill because it's not wide-open choice and its lobbyist expressly opposed retaining race as even a general consideration. Others urged holding off on school choice bills until the federal appeals court supplies guidance on an existing Arkansas school choice law struck down by a district court. The bill failed today on a voice vote.

* CLEAN WATER: The Citizens First Congress has distributed a letter to legislators on HB 1929, an industry-backed bill to gut standards in the state for discharges in waterways. The letter follows:

Dear Representatives,

We ask you to vote AGAINST HB1929 which reduces water quality standards in Arkansas.

We understand and respect that many of you are sponsors of this legislation and we believe THERE IS a problem with the way the state handles mineral standards — but there is a far better, faster alternative to solving that problem.

In our view, HB1929 will actually DELAY relief for municipal water treatment plants because the bill is clearly in violation of the Federal Clean Water Act and will be either thrown out or tied up in court for years.

The bill that the Arkansas Environmental Federation has presented to you appears to be more about politics than about policy and we are afraid that it will polarize water issues for years to come. The bill is presented as a solution to a legitimate concern about mineral standards, but goes much further and fundamentally undermines water quality standards statewide.

Arkansas has a tradition of working cooperatively to address water concerns in non- polarizing, bi-partisan ways. Arkansas has maintained some of the highest water quality in the world through this approach. HB1929, by instantly lowering ALL water quality standards across the state in conflict with federal law jeopardizes this tradition.

We have offered to work with AEF through the regulatory process to find a solution that addresses their concerns and that does not pose a large threat to water quality. They rejected that offer, but we continue to stand willing to bring conservation, sporting, drinking water and other concerned parties together to find a cooperative solution. A solution pursued through this avenue will not only be more cooperative, it will also yield a better solution more quickly and at a far lower cost than the legal entanglement that HB1929 is sure to create.

We ask you to refer HB1929 to an interim study and give the Department of Environmental Quality and the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission a 2year window of opportunity to address the concerns that AEF is raising.

Lets work together to solve this Arkansas problem in an Arkansas way. Passage of HB1929 will instantly involve the Federal Government, strike down the law, and leave the problem unsolved. We ask the Department of Environmental Quality to suspend enforcement actions for minor mineral standard violations during this same two year period while a solution is developed.

If this approach fails, in 2 years time the Legislature can again address the problem with far more information and participation from various stakeholders.

Sincerely,

Arkansas Citizens First Congress

Reasons to VOTE NO on House Bill 1929 weakening Arkansas water quality standards:

1. HB1929 allows increased pollution of our waters. The bill allows higher concentrations of minerals (mostly made up of salts) in our streams, lakes, and reservoirs. For a very large number of our surface waters, there will no longer
be any numeric limits on the in-stream concentrations of minerals (again, largely salts).

2. HB1929 conflicts with the federal Clean Water Act. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) stated in correspondence with the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality (ADEQ) that the bill does not comport with the requirements of the federal Clean Water Act that apply to the states and that govern the establishment and revision of state water quality standards. It could result in EPA disapproving the state’s water quality standards and taking back the administration of wastewater discharge permits from ADEQ. This would be bad for industry and conservationists alike.

3. HB1929 jeopardizes the state’s future drinking water supplies. The bill will take away the drinking water use designation and protections from many streams that aren’t currently thought to be potential drinking water supplies, but in fact may turn out to be a community’s best option for a water supply in the future. Many current and former public water supplies were created by damming small, low-flow streams. Even though the Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) is responsible for the administration of the federal Safe Drinking Water Act in the state, the bill does not provide for the participation of ADH in the determination of which streams are to be protected as future water supplies.

4. HB1929 does not fully protect existing drinking water supplies. The broader protections the amendments would extend to waterbodies within the watershed of a lake or reservoir used as a public water supply do not extend to the watersheds of rivers or streams that are used as drinking water supplies or to private drinking water supplies. Over 435,000 Arkansans get their drinking water from rivers and streams, rather than from lakes or reservoirs.

5. HB1929 contains unsound technical specifications that will harm existing and future drinking water supplies. The protections the bill may appear to provide to existing public water supplies are limited by unsound technical specifications and undefined terminology. The detailed requirements regarding the flow values to be used and the minimum number of samples required for various water quality assessments are not based on sound science, but rather are intended to allow higher levels of minerals to be discharged and to delay as long as possible the imposition of any discharge limits.

6. HB1929 is unnecessary. There are regulations already in place to address the issues certain industries and municipalities have regarding minerals without throwing the state water quality standards and ADEQ’s wastewater discharge permitting process into chaos. ADEQ has been moving forward to implement additional policies to further streamline the process.

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