Analysis: Arkansas session ends, but unresolved issues left

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - When they wrapped up the legislative session last week, Arkansas lawmakers and Gov. Asa Hutchinson had a long list of accomplishments that they could tout ranging from finalizing the state's nearly $5.5 billion budget to ending the state's much-scorned practice of commemorating Robert E. Lee on the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday.
 
But the list of unfinished work remaining in the coming months could be just as long, if not longer.
 
A debate over how to overhaul the state's tax code, lingering questions about the state's medical marijuana program and a growing highway funding gap are among a handful of the issues that the Legislature now must face with the 2017 session mostly finished. Here's a look at what remains on the state's plate:
 
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TAXES
 
Hutchinson scored a major political victory when lawmakers approved his $50 million tax cut, accompanied by his promise to seek deeper reductions later. The next step in that plan comes with the formation of a task force that's set to look at comprehensive changes to the state's tax code. Two major complications for that effort came over the past week, with the House rejecting a proposal to force out-of-state online retailers to collect Arkansas sales taxes and the announcement a day later that the state's revenue remains behind the official forecast. Both signal the difficulty lawmakers could face in trying to seek the type of dramatic cuts some Republicans want to push for in the 2019 session.
 
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HIGHWAYS
 
The failure of an effort to put $200 million highway improvement proposal on the ballot next year leaves Arkansas with few options to try to close the funding gaps for its roads. The proposal to put the bond measure on the ballot was defeated in the House, facing criticism from conservative Republicans over an accompanying plan to levy sales taxes on the wholesale price of gasoline and diesel if voters approved the bonds. Hutchinson said he hoped business leaders and others would look at pushing for a ballot measure for highways. The measure's failure could set up a renewed push in the 2019 session to tap into general revenue for roads, an effort that's likely to face pushback from Democrats and advocates who say the move would hurt other critical needs of the state.
 
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MEDICAL MARIJUANA
 
Lawmakers enacted a bevy of measures to help set up the medical marijuana program that voters approved in November, including restrictions on where it can be smoked and limits on its advertising. But heavy lifting and months of work remain before eligible patients can begin buying and using the drug for their medical conditions. The Legislature still has to approve rules for the three agencies that are implementing the marijuana amendment - the Medical Marijuana Commission, Alcohol Beverage Control and the Health Department - as the state faces a July 1 deadline to begin accepting applications for dispensaries.
 
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HEALTH CARE
 
There'll be little rest for lawmakers when they return to the Capitol next month to formally adjourn this year's session. They're also expected to reconvene in May for a short special session to take up legislation related to the changes Hutchinson is seeking to the state's hybrid Medicaid expansion. Hutchinson has said he'll ask the federal government to approve his proposals moving 60,000 people off the program by lowering its eligibility cap and imposing a work requirement for some participants. The hybrid expansion was easily reauthorized for another year, but the session could renew debate about the program's future as efforts to repeal the federal law that enabled the expansion remain stalled in Washington.

© 2017 Associated Press


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