Legislators set to look again at tobacco plan
Voters passed a tobacco settlement spending plan in November, but House Speaker Shane Broadway, D-Bryant, said legislators may tinker with it in the current legislative session.
That's one of many issues that lawmakers say they'll discuss this week at the state Capitol.
Other topics likely will include delaying electric deregulation and the reworked "Woman's Right to Know" abortion bill.
Lawmakers were expected to haggle over the intricate appropriations detailing the tobacco settlement plan, but Broadway said they may go even further and attack the entire funding scheme.
The plan includes money for a School of Public Health and money for Medicaid expansion.
Last week, the House Rules Committee cleared House Bill 1517 by Rep. Jim Lendall, D-Mabelvale, to ax the School of Public Health.
"We're going to get everybody's assessment about where they think we go from here, once they've got the information," Broadway said during a meeting with reporters.
Broadway said he regretted not talking to Lendall before the Rules Committee meeting Wednesday. He said he would have preferred Lendall wait until the budget bills on the tobacco plan are studied more.
The Legislature generally needs a simple majority, or 51 percent, to change a law. But the tobacco spending plan was passed by the public, so a supermajority, or 67 percent, is needed to change it in the Legislature.
Most appropriation bills need a three-fourths majority to pass.
"Some of the concern I've heard [from House members] is that the state is adding 377 jobs to state government [to implement the tobacco spending plan] -- are [those jobs] justified?" Broadway said Friday. "You've got a lot of other needs out there."
Lendall wants more money spent on helping the elderly pay for prescription drugs. He's also complained about the proposal to pay the director of the proposed School of Public Health $240,000.
Broadway and then-House Speaker Bob Johnson were the main roadblocks during the April 2000 special session called by Gov. Mike Huckabee to pass the tobacco spending plan that was supported by numerous health-related groups. The University of Arkansas System, a major beneficiary of the plan, lobbied hard for the plan, which Broadway and Johnson were able to defeat.
Broadway and Johnson argued that House members were ignored in negotiations. They said there was too much money for the UA System for research.
House Republican Leader Jim Magnus, R-Little Rock, opposed the tobacco spending plan pushed by Huckabee during the special session. "But I'm not going to work against it now," Magnus said. "I certainly wouldn't support voting against the blueprint the voters passed."
Rep. Jay Bradford, D-White Hall, who led the fight for the tobacco spending plan during the 2000 special session as the Senate president pro tempore at the time, said lawmakers are completely within their rights to, and should, debate the tobacco appropriations bill, such as the salaries for the positions being proposed to implement the plan.
But Bradford said lawmakers shouldn't tackle the broader issue of programs, such as the School of Public Health, approved by the voters.
"I would think we would make a serious mistake if we started changing funding categories that over 65 percent of the public supported," Bradford said.
With the aid of federal matching dollars, Huckabee's proposed appropriation for the tobacco settlement programs for fiscal 2002 is $56.5 million. That rises to $134.3 million by 2003. The money would be devoted to Medicaid expansion, the proposed School of Public Health a new Area Health Education Center in Helena, and other things.
Another topic lawmakers will discuss this week is the "Woman's Right to Know" bill, HB1074 by Magnus, which requires that women receiving abortions must receive certain information about the procedure beforehand.
The Senate significantly amended the bill after it passed the House. Magnus expects the House to vote on the changes Wednesday.
Also, Magnus expects the House to vote today on SB236 by Sen. Bill Gwatney, D-Jacksonville, which would delay electric deregulation two years. It passed the Senate Jan. 31.
HB1694 by Rep. David Rackley, R-Sherwood, faces a more uncertain future. Last week, Rackley got some attention when he filed the bill to force the University of Arkansas Razorbacks to play the Arkansas State Indians. UA Athletic Director Frank Broyles has consistently rejected playing schools within the state.
Broadway and Senate President Pro Tempore Mike Beebe, D-Searcy, are both graduates of Arkansas State University, although Beebe is quick to point out he also went to law school at UA. "I'd like to see them play," Beebe said. "But I don't think the Legislature has any business getting in the middle of it."
Broadway reserved judgment. He also questioned the Legislature's role but said he looked forward to a good debate.