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Arkansas lawmakers focus on ethics, tax cuts in 2019 session

Arkansas lawmakers focus on ethics, tax cuts in 2019 session

January 14th, 2019 by Andrew DeMillo / The Associated Press in Arkansas News

LITTLE ROCK—Arkansas legislative leaders want to clean up the Capitol's image in the wake of an ongoing corruption scandal and Gov. Asa Hutchinson is pushing for another cut in the state's income taxes as lawmakers gather Monday to kick off the 2019 legislative session.

Republicans remain firmly in control of the House and Senate and Hutchinson, a Republican, will be sworn in for a second term the day after the session begins.

Here's a look at some major issues that will be debated in the session:

 

TAXES AND SPENDING

A top agenda item is expected to be Hutchinson's plan to cut the state's top income tax rate, as well as simplify tax tables and brackets. Under Hutchinson's proposal, the state's top income tax rate will be cut from 6.9 percent to 6.5 percent in 2020 and to 6.3 percent the following year. The proposal would increase rates for some taxpayers and increase the standard deductions for married and single taxpayers to offset any increased taxes. The proposal will cost the state $47 million the first year and $111 million the following year.

Hutchinson's proposal calls for cutting the top rate to 5.9 percent over four years, which will cost $192 million once fully implemented. Since the plan would include tax increases, it would need at least three-fourths support in the Legislature.

"I wouldn't be proposing it and pushing it without the confidence that it can be managed within in our budget," Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson last week said he wants to fix his plan to ensure no taxpayers pay more net income taxes.

Democrats say they're worried about the impact the cuts could have on other state needs, and plan to again push for a tax credit aimed at helping low-income residents.

Hutchinson has also proposed setting aside $60 million to raise the minimum teacher salary in the state over the next four years.

 

ETHICS

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd and incoming Senate President Jim Hendren say restoring trust in the Legislature is their goal in response to a federal corruption probe that's led to the conviction of several former lawmakers and lobbyists.

"We can pass all the other things we want to, but if the public doesn't trust and there's this view things are not done the right way, then it's all for naught," Shepherd said.

The state Senate last year voted to overhaul its ethics and conflict of interest rules in response to the federal probe.

Lawmakers are expected to take up proposals that would make elected officials or public employees convicted of felonies related to their actions in office ineligible to receive their government retirement benefits. The Legislature is also expected to consider raising some ethics fines for public officials and increasing the budget for the state Ethics Commission.

"The legislation is important and in order to do that job well I think we've got some work to do in restoring the trust that's been lost," Hendren said.

 

AGENCY SHUFFLE

Hutchinson said he wants the Legislature to work early on his plan to cut the number of departments answering directly to him from 42 to 15.

The Republican governor has said no state employees would lose jobs through the reorganization, which he says would save the state $15 million a year in rent, leases and by sharing services.

"I think it's important for having the rest of the session flow smoothly and it also gives us time planning for the efficiencies," Hutchinson said.

The plan includes putting the State Police, Crime Lab and Department of Emergency Management under a new Department of Public Safety.

 

MEDICAID

Lawmakers will face another vote on reauthorizing Arkansas' Medicaid expansion, which uses state and federal funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents.

Keeping the program requires a three-fourths vote in both chambers, and the expansion has narrowly survived past efforts to kill it.

It's unclear whether a ruling in the lawsuit challenging its work requirement could come before the session wraps up this spring.

OTHER ISSUES

Arkansas already has some of the strictest abortion laws in the country, and Republican lawmakers are expected to take up even more restrictions. The proposals include legislation that would prohibit abortions based solely on a Down syndrome diagnosis, and requiring abortion providers to report complications.

They're also expected to take up gun measures, including a plan backed by Hutchinson to cut concealed-carry handgun fees in half. Democratic lawmakers have called for a measure that would allow the temporary seizure of guns from Arkansans if they're found to pose a threat to themselves or others.

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