“This is a weird time to get a feel for the session.”
In a nutshell, that’s how state Sen. Blake Johnson (R-20th District, including Greene, Clay, Lawrence and Randolph Counties) reacted to a question as to what he expected from the upcoming regular session that begins Jan. 11.
Johnson was one of several legislators contacted regarding the session, and he was one who expressed concern over how the session might be conducted in the face of the COVID-19 threat.
“There’s a feeling of disconnection between colleagues and the legislature,” he said.
In particular, Johnson expressed concern over any possibility of having to conduct legislative business remotely.
“I don’t think it’ll function well,” he said. “I’d like for us to be there, and that’s always in the back of my mind.”
“COVID has put a lot of stuff in the air,” added state Rep. Dwight Tosh (R-52nd District, including Craighead, Jackson, Poinsett and Independence Counties). “But we’ll do our best to work around that.”
State Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-57th District, including Paragould and Greene County) acknowledged COVID-19 to be the overarching issue in the upcoming session.
“Everyone is thinking about it,” he said. “And it’s a difficult issue.”
Several legislators weighed in on what they would like to see generally in the session. “I hope to see legislation passed that benefits the citizens,” said Tosh.
One proposal from Gov. Asa Hutchinson to come before the legislature is a tax cut totaling $50 million. Along those lines, Johnson said he is hopeful the cut would be more, even up to $100 million. “That’s if the economy stays rolling,” he said. “But I don’t see how we can do anything without federal assistance.”
Gazaway noted the existence of several proposals regarding taxes, with pushes to lower rates yet again.
One proposed tax cut by the governor that is garnering little favor among the legislators contacted involves reducing the top tax bracket from 5.9 percent to 4.9 percent. But not for everyone – just for new residents moving into the state.
“That’s like opening a new account at a bank and getting free checking when the longtime customers don’t get it,” Johnson said. “I don’t know how that’s going to work.”
State Rep. Frances Cavenaugh (R-60th District, including Greene, Lawrence, Randolph and Sharp Counties) minced no words about the proposal.
“I’m 100 percent against it,” she said. “It’s not fair to others, just to give it to people who are moving to Arkansas. If I voted for it, the people of my district would string me up!”
State Sen. Ronald Caldwell (R-23rd District, including Jackson, White, Monroe, Woodruff, Cross, St. Francis and Lee Counties) was similarly unenthusiastic.
“I’ve got a problem with it,” he said. Caldwell added that even if such a tax cut were enacted, the need exists to find the money for it without penalizing other residents.
“There was an income tax cut for retired veterans,” he said, “but to pay for it, they put income tax on unemployment benefits. Those people were already hurting and it didn’t make sense to take what little money they had.”
The cut was enacted in 2017.
Tosh wasn’t as harsh in his criticism of the new resident tax cut proposal, but he, too expressed opposition. “There needs to be a level playing field across the board for each resident,” he said. “It’s only fair.”
Gazaway acknowledged there is “a lot of opposition” to the proposal, to which he added his own. “The people who live here and invest here are paying the top rate,” he said. “But people who haven’t would get a lowered rate.”
On the other hand, all legislators contacted expressed some degree of support for a proposal to reduce the sales tax from 6.5 percent to 3.5 percent on used vehicles with a sale price of less than $10,000, followed by its total elimination after two years.
“Rep. [John] Payton [R-64th District] and I co-sponsored a bill to eliminate the sales tax on vehicles that cost less than $7,500 in the last session,” said Cavenaugh, “which passed the House but died in the Senate.”
Although she said she wasn’t particularly happy with the reduction to 3.5 percent – “it should be zero” – she expressed support for sales tax reductions like that proposed, as opposed to income tax reductions. “If we’re going to help lower-income people,” she said, “we need to do what will be of the most benefit.”
Tosh also recalled the previous session’s attempted sales tax cut. “I’m glad to see it’s back,” he said. “I’m in favor of it, and it needs to be done.”
Johnson and Caldwell expressed similar sentiment. “A sales tax cut on vehicles won’t affect the wealthy,” Caldwell said, “but it will help people in the Delta.”
Similarly, all expressed support for a proposal from the Education Committees of both houses to add $99.7 million to kindergarten through 12th-grade school funding for the upcoming fiscal year and $86.9 million for the 2023 fiscal year. “We have put unfunded mandates on the schools for teachers’ salaries,” said Cavenaugh, “and this will help them pay for them.”
Caldwell expressed a bit of caution, however. “We need to see whether the money’s going to be available,” he said.
The state is anticipating a $240 million surplus. However, on top of the $99.7 million for the schools, there is a proposal to transfer $100 million to the Long Term Reserve Fund and a $30 million transfer to the Department of Commerce for rural broadband, in addition to the proposed tax cuts.
All the legislators expressed a degree of support for the recommended increase for per-student spending from the current $6,985 per student, to $7,131 next year and to $7,281 in Fiscal Year 2023.
“We don’t have much of an option in that regard,” Gazaway said, mindful of the Lakeview Decision which required the legislature to ensure the state is able to provide a “general, suitable and efficient” public school system.
All the legislators expressed enthusiasm for the $30 million rural broadband proposal.
“It’ll pay dividends,” said Tosh, “especially in this pandemic when kids have to learn virtually.”
“Rural areas are definitely underserved,” added Johnson.
“There is a statewide need,” said Caldwell, “and we need to find matching funds.”
“It needs to happen,” added Gazaway. “Rural areas need to be able to keep up with the rest of the state and the country.”
Gazaway, Johnson and Cavenaugh said there are plans to introduce legislation to restore more of a balance of power between the legislative and executive branches.
“Checks and balances need to be addressed,” Johnson said.
“We don’t want to see the legislative branch’s hands tied by the executive branch,” added Cavenaugh. “We need more give and take between the branches.”
And Gazaway said he had a bill together with state Sen. Kim Hammer (R-33rd District) to limit the governor’s executive power by inserting the legislature into the process to check executive power.
“So far, the legislature has had no say,” he said, regarding the current pandemic, ”just the governor, the Health Department and the bureaucracy.”
Gazaway said the legislature, as elected representatives of the people, need a say in what happens, especially regarding mandates and restrictions.
“The people have no say,” he said. “That’s the biggest issue.”