Thursday, February 3, 2011

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – The General Assembly has given overwhelming support to ethics legislation, which mandates that lawmakers must wait for at least a year after they leave office before they can register as lobbyists.

SB 194, the Senate version of the legislation, has 35 sponsors. That means it has the support of the entire membership of the 35-member Senate. It has been voted on favorably in committee and will come up for a vote this week in the full Senate. The House version of the bill is progressing with similar success.

The one year waiting period imposed by SB 194 addresses the "revolving door" issue that results when lawmakers immediately go from positions in the legislature to lobbying jobs for special interests. It has undermined public confidence in the legislative process and created perceptions that lobbyists have inordinate influence at the Capitol.

SB 194 applies to legislators who run for re-election in 2012. All 35 state Senate seats will be on the ballot next year because of reapportionment and the redrawing of Senate district boundaries. There are 11 senators who cannot seek re-election because of the term limits amendment. SB 194 would not apply to them, but it would apply to the other 24 senators should they choose to run for re-election.

Another provision in SB 194 limits how much legislators can be reimbursed when they travel out of state to officially approved conferences. The bill would limit their reimbursement to the amount of the cheapest mode of travel.

When lawmakers drive they are reimbursed for mileage, but on long trips the amount for mileage can exceed the price of an airplane ticket.

Under SB 194, legislators could still drive long distances to conferences but they would receive reimbursement only for the cost of a flight.

The Senate approved SB 154 to prohibit drivers from talking on cell phones in school zones during school hours and when driving through construction zones. The bill passed on a vote of 18-to-12, with 18 votes necessary for passage in the Senate. The bill was sent to the House and referred to the House Transportation Committee.

Also, the Senate passed SB 69 to prohibit the sale of herbal snuff to children under 18. Herbal snuff has no tobacco and comes in flavors such as grape, cinnamon and mint. Supporters of the bill say it gets children into the habit of dipping snuff and they are much more likely to experiment with smokeless tobacco products that are extremely addictive and harmful to their health.

The proposal to limit sales of herbal snuff passed on a 28-to-4 vote and was sent to the House, where it was referred to the House Rules Committee.

The House passed a couple of bills that affect scheduling in public schools. HB 1099 allows school districts to begin the year on the Monday of the week in which August 19 falls. Current law says that schools may not open earlier than August 19.

If August 19 falls on a Friday, as it does this year, schools can schedule opening day on Monday, August 15. The bill clarifies that schools may not open earlier than August 14, however.

Also, the House passed HB 1224 to extend for another two years the law that requires all school districts to schedule spring break at the same time - the 38th week of the school year.

Both House bills were referred to the Senate Education Committee.

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