Legislative session on tobacco cash may come soon
A special legislative session on spending the state's tobacco settlement money may happen as soon as next week, Gov. Mike Huckabee said Tuesday.
Given increasing support for the plan he backs for doling out the money, he said he may issue this week the proclamation that will call the Legislature into special session.
Legislators supporting an opposing plan by House Speaker Bob Johnson, D-Morrilton, are starting to realize that "you don't risk the health of the state" over a "couple of million dollars," Huckabee said.
Over the next 25 years, the state will receive $1.62 billion from its lawsuit against tobacco companies over smoking-related illnesses.
The governor said that legislators are telling him that their calls and letters from voters overwhelmingly favor the Coalition for a Healthy Arkansas Today plan, the funding arrangement he and numerous health-care groups have endorsed.
Johnson insisted he still has "close to 60" of the 100 House members siding with him. He said he hasn't talked to the governor about a special session next week. "I don't know who [the governor has] talked to," Johnson said.
One legislator on Johnson's side, Rep. Terry Smith, D-Hot Springs, said Huckabee may lower his goals and try only to pass "enabling" legislation for the tobacco funds, which requires a simple majority. An appropriation bill calls for 75 percent majorities of the House and the Senate.
Smith said he wants the governor to wait before calling a special session. "It would be nice to have advance notice," Smith said. "I haven't heard a peep. I'll be out of the state next week. I guess he doesn't need my vote."
Huckabee spokesman Rex Nelson said the governor will consider seeking only enabling legislation. If the coalition program is passed with a strong majority, Nelson said, he doubts new legislators will alter the plan in 2001 when they discuss an appropriation bill.
Rep. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville, said she and most of the House members she knows support the coalition plan. "I have wondered all along who the people are [supporting] Bob Johnson," Madison said.
She said most legislators can support 80 percent of the coalition plan and are willing to pound out the remaining 20 percent during the special session. One disputed item in the coalition plan, she said, is a proposed school of public health.
Rep. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, who offered a competing plan and later sided with Johnson, said Tuesday that he's now leaning toward the coalition plan.
Sen. Jay Bradford, D-White Hall, said Johnson's power is waning because of term limits. The speaker is running for the Senate because his House term expires this year. Bradford said he hears from coalition members that 50 House members support their plan.
Bradford said most of the 34 Senate members support the coalition plan, but he doubts the governor has 75 House votes. "It might take a little longer to get there, but I do feel we will get there," Bradford said.
The coalition plan initially places $100 million in a trust fund, a concession to Johnson's plan. After three years $18 million would go toward anti-smoking programs, $17 million to Medicaid expansion, $13 million to research, $5 million to buildings and $9 million to targeted needs, such as the school of public health.
Johnson's plan calls for more money for hospitals and Medicaid.
Also Tuesday, Huckabee said he may use the special session to ban smoking in the Capitol. Now people may smoke in the hallways, and legislators sometimes light up in committee meetings. The nonsmoking governor said he's confident such a bill would pass.
One smoker said he wouldn't stand in its way. "They'll get no opposition from me," said Rep. Jim Luker, D-Wynne. "I know I'm the stupid one. I know what's in my best interest. I've just been addicted most of my life."
Last month Huckabee said he wouldn't bring up the matter in the special session but changed his mind because "it's a related item" to the tobacco settlement.
He said he'll likely call another session later this year to deal with other matters he declined to name.