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Session over for legislature

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By John R. Schirmer
News-Leader staff

While guns, education and the Freedom of Information Act dominated much of the discussion during the 91st General Assembly, other topics were also considered, according to Sen. Larry Teague of Nashville.

“The session’s wrapped up,” Teague said Friday afternoon. “The budget is all tied up and passed. Appropriation bills take a three-fourths vote. Revenue Stabilization takes a simple majority. We had a little trouble getting three-fourths, but we got that done.”

With state revenue forecasts running below previous expectations, one of Teague’s appropriations bills was vetoed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson. Teague had proposed $850,000 to continue the use of the Panic Button program in the state’s public schools.

The Panic Button is a Smartphone app that immediately notifies authorities in case of an emergency at a school. The state paid for the Panic Button for two fiscal years, and Teague sought funding for a third.

His bill passed, but Hutchinson vetoed it Friday, saying funds weren’t available and districts would have to pay for the Panic Button if they want to continue using it.

The General Assembly dealt with bills related to medical marijuana under an initiated act approved by voters last November. “Several bills were defeated; several passed,” Teague said.

“These are hard issues to vote on. The people voted for the initiated act. We had to tweak it. Some are against it. Some said it isn’t as liberal as it could be. It’s hard to decide,” Teague said. “The last day, we passed a bill requiring 60 percent ownership by Arkansans.”

An Internet sales tax bill failed to get out of the House April 2, the last day before the session recessed. “It’s dead until we come back,” Teague said.

“We had worked on getting it passed out of the Senate. It required vendors who collect over $100,000 to collect sales tax,” Teague said of the proposal.

“It’s local business versus out of state,” Teague said. “I side with local business. The tax is already owed.”

The bill was meant to level the playing field between Internet companies which collect no sales tax in states where they have no “physical presence” and local businesses which must collect sales tax.

Amazon announced during the session that it would begin collecting sales tax in Arkansas March 1 on items which it directly sells in the state. Third-party vendors are not affected.

Gun legislation grabbed many of the headlines during the session. After first passing a bill allowing concealed carry almost anywhere in the state, legislators “came back and exempted sporting activities and UAMS,” Teague said, along with the State Hospital.

“The Razorbacks would have had trouble with the SEC and NCAA” if guns had been allowed at venues such as Razorback Stadium.

Legislators dealt with a host of bills related to education in grades K-12. “I don’t think we hurt the process. I’m not sure if we helped,” Teague said.

“The voucher bill didn’t get out of the House,” according to Teague.

A bill aimed at reducing funds which school districts may save from year to year was passed. Districts may have no more than 25 percent of their budget in savings.

“I voted against taking money from them,” Teague said. “I don’t want the state taking the money.”

After introducing more than two dozen bills to weaken the state’s 50-year-old Freedom of Information Act, legislators approved 10 over opposition from FOIA experts and open-government advocates.

Teague voted against the proposals which some said would “gut” the FOIA. One bill which was voted down would have made information about lawsuits against universities almost impossible to obtain. The state already has laws under which an institution can ask a court to make some records private, Teague said. “There wasn’t a good reason to exclude the records” from FOIA.

Most of the bill was written by representatives of the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and Arkansas State University. “The University of Arkansas was there until the last day” trying to win passage, Teague said.

Overall, the FOIA “didn’t take any [major] hits,” according to Teague.

The walking competition among the Senate, House and governor’s office ended April 3. The Senate was the overall winner, but the individual winner won’t be announced until May, Teague said.

Teague was in first place through much of the contest but said he had stiff competition from another senator. “I walked one million-plus steps, over 600 miles,” he said.

Legislators will return to the Capitol next month to tie up loose ends and officially adjourn sine die.