Editor’s note: A previous version of this column was headlined “Not paid by the hour” and referenced the fact that legislators aren’t paid that way. But they do receive per diem expenses – in other words, payment by the day. So this changes the reference in the beginning and the end.
State legislators are heading back to Little Rock – for the third time this year.
This time, it will be for (hopefully) a three-day session whose primary purpose will be to find about $50 million a year in state funds to qualify for $200 million in federal funds over the next five years. Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s highway bill raises that $50 million mostly through surplus and “rainy day” funds, along with funds generated by the state treasurer’s office.
Typically, governors call special sessions for very specific purposes, and only when they are comfortable they will get what they want. Much of the real action occurs before the session as the details are wrangled over in the Capitol. When the governor issues his “call,” it can be so specific that only his favored bills likely will be considered.
That means that, eventually, Hutchinson’s highway bill probably will pass. However, there’s a hiccup: The bill is expected to be assigned to the Senate Transportation, Technology & Legislative Affairs Committee, where four Republican legislators – half the committee – proposed a more substantive eight-cent motor fuels tax increase for highways, perhaps coupled with cuts in other spending elsewhere. It’s a worthy idea, but no legislator is too excited about voting to raise gas taxes, and Hutchinson is firmly opposed. But those four are not that excited about Hutchinson’s plan, either, and bills need a majority to get out of committee.
Even Hutchinson admits his bill represents a short-term fix for a longer term problem. Motor fuels taxes haven’t changed at the federal level since 1993 or at the state level since 2001, despite highways becoming much more expensive to build. Meanwhile, cars have become more fuel-efficient, which means drivers are buying fewer gallons to drive the same number of miles, and therefore paying less in taxes. In effect, we’re all getting a tax cut every year, though few taxpayers understandably will see it that way
Prior to the session call, House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, was saying the governor’s call would contain between five and 15 items.
It contains the latter, many of which are technical and uncontroversial but some of which are kind of important, including a bill by Sen. Greg Standridge, R-Russellville, that would close a worker’s compensation trust fund for deaths and permanent disabilities that’s $130 million in the hole. If the bill passes, the state will spend the next three decades paying off existing claims – and taxing businesses as it does now – but new claims will be paid through employers’ insurance companies. The State Chamber of Commerce thinks more time is needed to help businesses withstand the blow, but Standridge says he has enough votes, and he’s charging forward. There’s also a bill to declare a one-year moratorium on placing schools in academic distress, just to let everyone catch their breath after all the changes of the past few years.
Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, says this all could have waited until January, when legislators will gather in Little Rock for the big every-other-year regular session. In an interview, he questioned the “potpourri of ideas and conglomerations” and asked, “At what point does a special session cease to be special?”
Files’ frustration is borne of the fact that this will be the third time legislators have traipsed to Little Rock this year. On April 6, Hutchinson called legislators to gather for a very difficult special session dedicated to his Arkansas Works, which is his continuation of a state program that uses federal dollars through Obamacare to buy private insurance for lower-income Arkansans. That session was a doozy. Then legislators gathered for a fiscal session to pay for everything in the budget, including Arkansas Works. It was another doozy.
Aside from all that, legislators’ party primaries were March 1, and many still have general election foes in November.
So we’re halfway through May, and legislators have spent a good chunk of the year meeting in session, preparing for one, and campaigning. This should be the last special session of the year, which will be a good thing. The Capitol’s a beautiful building – sometimes, particularly when it’s quiet.
Related: Voters – better roads, same taxes