LITTLE ROCK – Although much about the 2013 legislative session was new and different, it was like previous sessions in the long hours and hectic pace at which legislators worked to finish business on difficult and challenging issues.
The 89th General Assembly was the first in 138 years that had a Republican majority. Another innovation in the 2013 session was how legislators of both political parties used new technology. With lap tops and smart phones, senators kept in constant touch with constituents and colleagues, even while they were in session in the Senate chamber.
This year, when senators presented legislation to the body they often brought a hand-held computer so they could reference the bill and ancillary material such as fiscal impact statements and position papers.
However, the Senate is a conservative body that is slow to relinquish old habits, and many senators still carried a stack of paperwork to the front of the chamber when it was their turn to present legislation.
Another legislative tradition remained intact – the difficult decisions were made in the final hours on funding of education and health care. The most time consuming duty for legislators is writing budgets, and in the 2013 session the most difficult budget issue was whether to fund an expansion in health coverage for about 250,000 working adults.
The legislature approved the “private option” health plan with 75 percent majorities in both the Senate and House. It’s called the “private option” because it takes Medicaid dollars and uses them to purchase private health insurance for people whose yearly income is less than 138 percent of the federal poverty level.
The goal was to not simply expand a government program, as the federal government had initially directed, but instead to provide health coverage through the private sector and thus allow the free market to hold down costs.
The Senate also approved a package of tax cut bills that will save Arkansas taxpayers more than $150 million a year when they take full effect. They include reductions in state individual income taxes, capital gains taxes and sales taxes on energy used by manufacturers, farmers and poultry growers.
Arkansans in the military will not have to pay income taxes on their service pay, saving them more than $7 million a year. Volunteer firefighters who buy their own equipment or have it damaged in the course of duty will qualify for income tax deductions.
The legislature created a revolving loan fund for charter schools to build or renovate facilities. A new school choice law was enacted, replacing the one that was stricken by a federal judge last year. Public school will get a 2 percent increase in state foundation aid.
A package of election laws were enacted to ensure more transparency and accountability in the counting of ballots, including legislation requiring voters to present a government-issued photo ID to get a ballot.
Numerous laws were enacted to protect Second Amendment rights, such as legislation protecting the privacy of concealed carry permit holders from disclosure under the Freedom of Information Act. Another new law allows churches the choice of whether to allow their members with concealed carry permits to bring firearms into church.
Also, this year’s session will be remembered for the number of pro-life bills approved, including legislation prohibiting abortions after 12 weeks of the physician can discern a heartbeat.