Overview of the 93rd General Assembly
By Josh Curtis, AAC Government Affairs Director
Normally I would start this column by saying the 93rd General Assembly has adjourned sine die on blank date, but not this year. This year is unlike any other, and I am sure everyone reading this has used that phrase a time or two over the last 15 months. The 93rd General assembly is in recess. Actually, they are calling it an extended recess. I am sick of hearing COVID-19 excuses, but once again COVID-19 is the reason the legislature cannot adjourn sine die. Under Arkansas law, the General Assembly redistricts all four congressional districts after each decennial census. The U.S. Census Bureau announced that due to “COVID-19 related delays and prioritizing the delivery of the apportionment results,” the Bureau will not be able to deliver redistricting data until late September.
House Concurrent Resolution (HCR) 1015 states when the extended recess begins and the purpose for reconvening. It lists three items that may be addressed when the legislature comes back to town. The No. 1 reason for the recess is congressional redistricting. Arkansas increased its population by 3.3 percent over the last 10 years. This means the House and Senate must divide 3,011,524 Arkansans into four separate congressional districts. That’s about 750,000 per district. One district — the Northwest corner of the state — has increased its population by over 70,000 since the last census. This means that district must lose population. In contrast one district lost over 50,000, so it needs to gain population. The two districts that lost population are the largest geographically, and the two that gained have a total of 13 counties. I have a feeling that the maps the legislature ultimately approves will look drastically different than they do today.
The other two items listed in HCR1015 deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The legislature may reconvene to consider legislation related to the COVID-19 public health emergency. One thing you saw this session was codifying executive orders. The Governor signed many executive orders during the public health emergency, some the legislative branch agreed with and some they didn’t. One executive order they liked was the expanded use of telemedicine, which they codified so it doesn’t go away when the emergency is lifted. One they didn’t like was the mask mandate; they passed a law limiting the Governor’s power during an emergency. Another executive order protected businesses from the liability of COVID-19, which the business community lobbied for and got signed into law.
The last item the legislature will likely address after the extended recess is how to spend money coming from the federal government. The most recent COVID-19 relief bill was signed into law by President Joe Biden March 11 after party line votes in both chambers. It is called the American Rescue Plan (APR) Act of 2021. This spending bill sends $585 million directly to counties in Arkansas. At this time, it is unclear how this money can be spent. Additionally, the state will receive $1.8 billion for COVID relief. The last time the state received COVID relief dollars (from the CARES Act), the legislature didn’t have as much say as they wanted in directing the money. This is the reason they listed COVID-19 funding in HCR1015.
The 93rd General Assembly was a success for Arkansas and the counties in Arkansas. There has been much focus on controversial issues such as guns, abortion, and pushing back against the federal government. These are the topics about which legislators debate most passionately. Therefore, they get more media coverage than other bills, including those related to county government. Let me share some of our successes.
The AAC legislative package included 33 bills that the AAC’s nine member associations worked on and drafted in the hopes that they would become law. Of those 33 bills, the AAC legislative team secured the passage of 31. Of course, we would have liked to have pitched a perfect game but a 15 to nothing no-hitter is pretty dang good.
These new Acts range from cleanup language that had been identified in the interim to cutting red tape to allow our counties to operate faster and more efficiently, to securing funding mechanisms for law enforcement equipment. A couple of cleanup bills we navigated through the legislative process were HB1328 and HB1634. Amendment 95, which voters passed in 2016, changed county officials terms from two to four years. Several codes still referenced two-year terms. HB1328 amended those codes to reflect the changes Amendment 95 enacted. HB1634 amended a law that was put on the books back in 1929, mandating county collectors to post notice in newspapers before opening their tax books. Now, instead of posting in a newspaper, county collectors can send tax statements directly to the person or entity owing taxes. These are just two examples of many codes that required some attention so the law would be clear, and we could answer questions confidently in the future.
The County Judges Association of Arkansas didn’t have as many big issues to tackle this session, but they had a rather large number of bills in their package. SB305, sponsored by Sen. Ronald Caldwell and Rep. Mike Holcomb, is now Act 440. Act 440 increases the procurement bidding threshold for construction from $35,000 to $50,000. SB456 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield and Rep. Lanny Fite is now Act 435. This act increases procurement bidding thresholds for commodities from $20,000 to $35,000 and provides for adjusting thresholds based on the Consumer Price Index (CPI) at five-year intervals. HB1699 by Rep. Danny Watson and Sen. Jonathan Dismang is now Act 517. This act removes the duplicative reporting requirement for a county or municipality receiving a distribution of highway revenue of $2 million or more. These bills came from ideas the judges had and issues they have experienced. Most of you know that construction costs have gone through the roof over the last few years, and it’s getting harder and harder to find enough willing contractors to bid jobs in rural Arkansas. These bills will help counties eliminate wasteful cost and allow government to act more quickly.
A few of the AAC package bills will help counties plan for the future. Counties plan by projecting revenue, which can sometimes be difficult because you never know when a disaster or another pandemic will come around. SB528, sponsored by Sen. Bill Sample and Rep. Les Warren, is now Act 776. This act allows the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) to send a report of businesses to counties and cities that are receiving or will receive a tax credit. These tax credits are great economic development recruiting tools but sometimes counties are out of the loop and need to plan for the revenue impact. The reports keep confidential information intact to protect these businesses. Another bill that will help our counties in the future is HB1860, sponsored by Rep. Lanny Fite and Sen. Gary Stubblefield. Now Act 752, this new law allows counties to appropriate 100 percent of federal assistance dollars. Counties will be able to appropriate 100 percent of the American Rescue Plan money they are currently receiving.
We are still waiting on an official Attorney General’s opinion regarding when these bills become law. Bills that have emergency clauses go into effect as soon as the Governor signs them, and appropriation bills become law at the beginning of the next fiscal year. Our conservative guess for all the other bills to become law will be by the first of August. This was an unconventional session to say the least, but your AAC team navigated the strange circumstances in the marble halls of the state Capitol.