LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Arkansas lawmakers are on the verge of resolving two of the biggest issues looming over this year's session, while an independent commission is taking the first step toward granting legislators and other elected officials substantial pay raises.
Major votes on Gov. Asa Hutchinson's tax cut plan and his push to continue the state's compromise Medicaid expansion are expected at the Legislature as lawmakers return to the Capitol for the fourth week of this year's session.
Key issues to watch at the Legislature this week:
A House panel is expected to take up legislation Tuesday to create a task force that will look at alternatives for the thousands currently covered by Arkansas' "private option" Medicaid expansion, as well as longer term health reforms.
The task force is a key part of Hutchinson's call to continue, through 2016, the private option, which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor. The Senate last week approved the task force bill anda funding measure to reauthorize the private option through June 30, 2016.
House Speaker Jeremy Gillam has said he wants the House to consider both measures on the same day. Reauthorizing the private option will require 75 votes in the 100-member chamber.
A final vote is expected in the Senate this week on Hutchinson's proposal to cut taxes for the middle class by $102 million a year. The legislation would cut income taxes by 1 percent for those making between $21,000 and $75,000 a year.
The Senate has already approved the cut, but must agree to an amendment by the House that scaled back an initial plan to repeal a capital gains tax break lawmakers approved two years ago. Hutchinson, a Republican, campaigned on the tax cut promise and has called it his top priority in this year's session
The Independent Citizens Commission is expected to vote Monday on its initial review of elected officials' salaries, which calls for more than doubling lawmakers' pay and substantial salary increases for most constitutional officers and judges.
The pay raise plan is far from a done deal, however. Monday's vote kicks off a monthlong period where the commission will gather public comments, with a hearing set on March 2. The seven-member panel plans a final vote on March 5. If approved, the raises would take effect 10 days later.
The House is expected to vote as early as Monday on legislation that would bar the use of telemedicine — the practice of medicine via video conferencing — to administer the abortion pill. The proposal would require a doctor to be present when the abortion pill is administered.
Anti-abortion groups have called the measure their top priority in the legislative session, and Hutchinson says he supports the restriction. Planned Parenthood offers the abortion pill at its facilities in Little Rock and Fayetteville, but has said it doesn't have any plans to use telemedicine to offer the medication in Arkansas. Supporters of telemedicine in other states have defended it as a safe and effective way, especially in rural areas where surgical abortions aren't readily available.
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