Legislative Roundup: Lawmakers Set to Move Ahead With Steel Mill

Arkansas lawmakers this week received reports from two consultants hired by the state to study the economic impact of the proposed $1 billion Big River Steel project in Mississippi County.

Per Amendment 82, which allows the state wiggle room to provide funding necessary to help land “super projects” like Big River, the Legislature had 20 business days to study and approve the project once the Arkansas Economic Development Commission delivered a letter of commitment between it and Big River to lawmakers. The 20 days are up March 20.

The consultant reports cost roughly $77,000 combined, and came from Regional Economic Models Inc. of Amherst, Mass. ($29,000), and IHS Global Insight Inc. of Englewood, Colo. ($48,750).

Multiple bills were filed this week (just under the filing deadline), one or some of which may carry the actual Big River legislation. AEDC spokesman Joe Holmes told Arkansas Business that multiple bills — many of them shell bills — were filed just in case legislators decide to run the Big River project in several bills.

The bills were referred to the Agriculture, Forestry & Economic Development committees in both the House and Senate.

The state has committed to $125 million for Big River — $50 million in loans and $75 million in grants. In addition, the Arkansas Teacher Retirement System is investing $60 million in the project and Mississippi County is providing $14.5 million from its economic development tax.

Lawmakers are expected to approve the project, which Big River officials say will employ 2,000 in the construction phase and 500-plus when the mill opens at an average annual salary of $75,000.

Voter ID Bill Advances
Sen. Bryan King’s voter ID bill that would require Arkansas voters to show photo identification before they could cast a ballot was passed by the full House by a vote of 51-44 this week over objections concerning its ability to be upheld in court.

The Green Forest Republican’s bill would require provisional ballots for those who fail to show a photo ID and would provide free state-issued IDs at a cost of roughly $300,000.

The bill heads back to the Senate to concur on an amendment that exempts active duty military personnel who vote by absentee ballot.

Elsewhere at the Capital

  • A House open carry bill failed in its second run through committee, falling one vote shy of advancing to the full House.
  • An amended bill creating the Asbestos Abatement Grant Program eased through the Senate and was referred to the House last week. The bill, by Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, would allow the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality to award grants for asbestos cleanup to Arkansas cities with populations under 30,000.
  • An amended Senate Bill 640 was scheduled to be run. The Property Accessed Clean Energy Act (PACE Initiative) by Sen. David Johnson, D-Little Rock, would establish energy improvement districts to fund loans for energy efficiency, renewable energy and water improvement projects.
  • A bill providing tax credits for "photovoltaic" (solar cell) manufacturers was scheduled to be heard in House committee. The proposal by Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, would create limited tax exemptions for qualified manufacturers.
  • A bill reducing the sales tax paid on utilities by manufacturers was scheduled to be heard in House Revenue. Sponsored by Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, and Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, the measure would reduce the sales tax on utilities to 1 percent by 2015. Originally, it cut the sales tax all together by 2014.
  • The Senate voted unanimously to expand the definition of an unborn child in the state's criminal codes. The proposal from Sen. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette, would make it a crime to harm a fetus from conception to birth. Currently, recognition of an unborn child begins at 12 weeks after conception. The bill exempts legal abortions.