LITTLE ROCK - After putting the finishing touches on a $50 million-a-year tax cut for low income families, lawmakers turned their focus to legislation that exempts military retirement benefits from the state income tax.
About 657,000 Arkansas taxpayers will benefit from Act 78 of 2017, which reduces or eliminates individual state income taxes for people whose incomes are less than $21,000 a year.
About 29,000 Arkansas veterans, who served long enough to qualify for military retirement benefits, will benefit from Senate Bill 120 and House Bill 1162, which is identical. It exempts all their retirement pay from the state income tax.
State tax officials estimate that on average, each of them will save $462 a year in lower income taxes.
Now that the legislature has approved the main tax cut bills under consideration this year, the state's revenue forecast is fairly clear. From this point on, spending bills will take up much of the legislature's attention.
Up first on the Senates' agenda is HB 1209, a bill to fundamentally change how state aid is distributed to colleges and universities. Now, higher education receives about $753 million from the state. That money goes to 22 two-year colleges and ten four-year universities.
The formula for distributing state aid is based in large part on enrollment, and as a result some campuses have adopted admission policies that have driven up the number of students dramatically.
HB 1209 would change the formula and instead would base funding on outcomes.
That means the percentage of students who graduate, with a degree or a certificate that better prepares them to get a job.
The governor included HB 1209 in his legislative package, and has pledged an additional $10 million in aid to higher education if the new funding formula is approved.
HB 1209 has been passed by the House. Although some House members expressed concern about its financial impact on particular campuses, the bill passed by a vote of 80-to-10.
The major concern expressed in the Senate Education Committee was that the state does not support higher education adequately. The committee gave it a favorable recommendation; consideration by the full Senate is the next step before it is sent to the governor.
By a vote of 74-to-21, the House passed and sent to the Senate HB 1047 to require voters to present a photo ID at polling stations before they can cast a ballot.
The acceptable forms of identification include a driver's license, a concealed carry permit, a student or a military ID, a passport, an employee badge and a public assistance ID.
People who have no other valid type of identification card could get one for free from the Secretary of State. To get a free photo ID from the Secretary of State they must swear an oath that they do not have any of the other valid forms of ID.
The legislature has passed similar legislation in the past, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. For that reason, some legislators want to refer to a statewide election a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a photo ID in order to be allowed to vote.
The House passed HB 1249 to allow faculty on college campuses to carry a concealed firearm if they have a permit. Currently, they're prohibited from doing so because each college campus has adopted a policy against it.
Those policies would be overridden by HB 1249. It passed by a vote of 71-to-22 and will be considered next by the Senate Judiciary Committee.