LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The Arkansas Legislature wrapped up this year's legislative session Friday, passing a $4.9 billion budget and a package of $140 million in tax cuts as well as approving $125 million to help land a major employer for northeast Arkansas.
The House and Senate each gaveled in for only minutes to adjourn the session. The formality was necessary in case legislators had to make changes to bills or vote on overrides of any bills that were vetoed at the last minute by Gov. Mike Beebe.
Republican Sen. Bryan King, who sponsored three vetoed bills aimed at overhauling the state's election commission, said Friday he wouldn't try to override the governor. One of those measures would have effectively fired the current members of the commission. King wasn't present for Friday's brief session.
Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, said legislators from both parties were pressured by some election commission members to oppose overrides on the bills. Under Arkansas law, only a simple majority is needed in each house for an override.
"I think it depended on how the current makeup of your election commission was working and I don't think there was the overwhelming support to override it," Lamoureux said.
Session highlights included an agreement on expanding the Medicaid program by providing private insurance for low-income residents, a 2 percent increase in per-student funding for public schools and a bill that requires voters to show photo identification at the polls.
"Nothing's perfect but I think things turned out relatively well. It was a bipartisan session and I think we made things work and those were our two main goals. I feel good about what we did," Lamoureux said.
But Democratic leaders have pledged to try to overturn abortion restrictions that were pushed through by the new Republican majority early in the session.
The Legislature enacted some of the strictest abortion laws in the country by overriding two of Beebe's vetoes. One measure bans the procedure 20 weeks into a pregnancy, with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother, and the other bans abortions 12 weeks into a pregnancy, with the same exceptions as the 20-week ban plus one for highly lethal fetal disorders.
Beebe said he vetoed the measures because he felt neither would stand up in court and would be an unnecessary expense for the state. On Friday, a federal judge granted a request to temporarily block enforcement of the 12-week abortion ban.
Also this session, the Legislature approved measures allowing places of worship to decide whether to allow concealed weapons in their facilities. Another allows faculty and staff at Arkansas colleges and universities to carry concealed handguns on campus unless the college's governing board bans them; several campuses have already enacted such bans.
Putting its own stamp on President Barack Obama's health overhaul, the Legislature agreed to expand the Medicaid program, using additional funding to purchase private insurance for thousands of low-income residents. The program still needs federal approval.
Legislators referred three proposed constitutional amendments to voters, one of which would ban most lobbyist gifts to elected officials and ban corporate campaign contributions. Another would give legislators the power to require legislative approval of state agency rules. A third would require at least 75 percent of signatures submitted by initiative campaigns to be verified as valid before they're given additional time to circulate petitions.
Income and capital gains tax cuts approved this year will eventually cost the state $140 million annually. Legislators also gave breaks to manufacturers and veterans.
And to help reel in a new business, the House and Senate approved $125 million in aid to help secure a $1.1 billion steel mill planned for Osceola. The Big River Steel project was the first under a 2004 "superproject" constitutional amendment to meet criteria for the state to issue bonds. The mill promises to employ 525 people who will earn at least $75,000 per year.
The session was the first with Republicans holding a majority in the House and Senate in 138 years. The Legislature will convene again next year for a more limited fiscal session.