Thursday, March 26, 2015

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
            LITTLE ROCK – The Senate approved legislation to place a monument of the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the state Capitol.
            It would be paid for entirely with private donations, but the Secretary of State would be responsible for its placement and design. The Secretary of State’s office is in charge of maintenance of the Capitol building and its grounds.
            If a lawsuit is filed that challenges the constitutionality or legality of the bill, the state Attorney General could prepare a defense or contract with a Texas company to defend the monument. The law firm, Liberty Legal Institute, has experience in lawsuits that determine the boundaries between church and state.  It is specifically named in the bill as the company that can be hired to defend the monument.
            The bill, SB 939, was sent to the House and referred to its Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs. The 2015 regular session is in its final days, so there is a sense of urgency among sponsors to expedite passage of the measure before the legislature adjourns. It has 16 Senate sponsors and 26 House sponsors. It passed the Senate by a vote of 27-to-3.
            In other news, the Senate passed SB 1013 to create a Voter Integrity Unit within the Secretary of State’s office to investigate reports of voter fraud and irregularities in elections. It would have members of both major political parties and would be independent of local government entities, so that its findings would be impartial.
            In addition to investigating election misconduct, the unit would order a recount.
            The House Committee on State Agencies advanced HB 1233 to require that campaign finance reports be submitted electronically in a digital format. It would be easier to conduct searches if all campaign finance reports were available online.
            The House approved SB 472 to address the problem of prison overcrowding. It opens new prison space, sets up more drug courts and strengthens the parole and probation system. It will go to the governor for his signature.
            The entire House approved HB 1402 to reduce the state income tax on capital gains, by a vote of 68-to-17. Currently, 40 percent of capital gains are exempt and the bill would increase the exemption to 45 percent, effective February 1. On July 1, 2016, the exemption would go up to 50 percent. Also, income from capital gains in excess of $10 million would be exempt from state income taxes.
            It would save taxpayers $6 million in Fiscal Year 2016 and $11.8 million in Fiscal Year 2017. In the closing days of the session, legislative leaders were working on how to reconcile the tax reduction with the need to fund vital state services.
Also during the closing days, there was a push to approve tax reductions on veterans’ benefits in SB 782. It would phase in tax reductions, saving veterans $4.8 million next year and $13 million in 2018, when fully in effect.
            Legislators are finalizing a state general revenue budget of about $5.2 billion for next fiscal year. General revenue comes mostly from sales taxes and individual and corporate income taxes. 
When lawmakers determine the extent of all tax reductions and the scope of all state agency spending bills, they will consider the Revenue Stabilization Act. It is the state’s balanced budget law.

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