Legislative Roundup: Gun, Abortion Issues Dominate Session

The 89th General Assembly is living up to its new Republican vibe, advancing legislation last week that would make it possible to carry guns into certain churches and ban abortions after 20 weeks.

The 2013 legislative session features a Republican majority in both chambers and is the first such body to do so in about 140 years. Bills that ultimately failed to advance or gain any momentum two years ago with Democrats in control of both the Arkansas House and Senate now have much better chances of becoming laws.

Sen. Bryan King’s Church Protection Act, otherwise known as Senate Bill 71, would allow churches the option of allowing concealed-carry permit holders to carry in church. Last week, it passed the House Judiciary Committee after already winning approval in the Senate (where Republicans hold a 21-14 advantage over Democrats).

The Green Forest Republican introduced similar legislation in 2011. Forty-nine states allow concealed handguns; 10 of those, including Arkansas, prohibit them in churches. Gov. Mike Beebe, a Democrat, indicated he’d sign the bill if it reached his desk.

It has but one more step to do so, a full House vote. House Speaker Davy Carter of Cabot believes it will pass the House, in which Republicans hold a slim 51-48-1 majority but with many Democrats expected to support it.

Arkansas Human Heartbeat Protection Act

A bill that would ban abortion in cases where a fetal heartbeat is detected was approved by the full Senate last week and heads to House committee. Senate Bill 134, the Arkansas Human Heartbeat Protection Act by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, would require women seeking an abortion to undergo a procedure to detect if a fetal heartbeat is present. The bill would exempt cases of rape, incest or if the life of the mother was in danger. Eighteen of the Senate’s 35 members have signed on as bill co-sponsors.

Opponents have promised legal action if the bill is passed, and based on that promise Beebe has taken a wait-and-see approach regarding his support of the measure.

In related legislation last week, House Bill 1037, lead sponsored by Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, was advanced through the House Public Health Committee. It would ban abortions after 20 weeks and is based on research that says 20-week fetuses can feel pain. Bill detractors who argued against it in committee disputed the research’s findings. Medical doctors on both sides of the issue testified, and the measure passed on a voice vote with a few dissenters, according to The Associated Press.

If passed, the bill would make exemptions for the health of the mother, but not for rape or incest.

Charter Schools

Elsewhere at the Capitol last week, charter schools were on the agenda. A bill by Rep. Mark Biviano, R-Searcy, would create an independent charter school commission outside the state’s Department of Education. It awaits its day in the House Education Committee.

Gov. Mike Beebe and Education Department officials oppose it, but last week a prominent former governor endorsed the measure during a charter school rally in Little Rock. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush spoke at the state Capitol and urged Arkansas lawmakers to expand educational opportunities and change the way the state approves charters.

Medicaid

Also last week, the state lowered its Medicaid shortfall projection to $61 million, down from a previous expectation of $138 million. The latest projection is dependant on the Legislature’s approval of $90 million in general revenue funding and $140 million from the state surplus.

Medicaid is expected to be the hallmark issue of this legislative session as Beebe and lawmakers decide how to handle Medicaid expansion under the federal Affordable Care Act.

Check out all of Arkansas Business’ legislative coverage at ArkansasBusiness.com/89th-General-Assembly

(Compiled from Associated Press reports)