LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Senate President Bob Johnson on Monday said he thinks a 56-cent-per-pack increase in the cigarette tax and other tobacco tax increases has enough support to clear a legislative panel this week.
The Senate co-sponsor of Gov. Mike Beebe's proposed $87.8 million tax increase for a statewide trauma system and other health programs has said he anticipates bringing the legislation before the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee on Wednesday.
"An early assessment of the membership (shows) it has a very good chance of coming out," Johnson, D-Bigelow, said Monday.
The tobacco-tax increase passed the House last week 75-24 without a vote to spare and needs 27 votes in the Senate to pass.
Four committee members back the plan and two have said they are voting against it. Two are undecided.
Sen. Sharon Trusty, who had previously said she was undecided on the proposal, said Monday she would likely vote against it but said she planned to meet with Beebe later in the day to talk about the health-care plan.
"If I had to vote right now, it would be a 'No' but I think it's only fair to listen to what he has to say," said Trusty, R-Russellville.
Twenty senators have told The Associated Press that they plan to support the bill or are leaning toward supporting it. Six have said they'll oppose it or are leaning against it, while nine have said they're undecided or won't say how they'll vote on the bill.
Johnson would not say how much support he thinks the measure has among the Senate's 35 members.
"We're still hunting and gathering right now," he said.
Senate Republican Leader Kim Hendren said Monday he was leaning toward supporting the bill, but said he wanted more details on how the money raised by the tax would be spent. Beebe's office has said that, combined with federal matching dollars, the tax increase could pay for nearly $180 million in expanded health programs.
"When you look at general revenue, that we're taking half a billion dollars to subsidize health problems of (smokers), it gives you pause," said Hendren, R-Gravette.
Hendren said he was also concerned that the House's decision to wait before taking action on a 1-cent cut in the grocery tax is tied to how the tobacco tax fares in the Senate. House leaders have said they want to wait and see how state revenues come in before taking up Beebe's tax-cut proposal.
The proposed $30 million tax cut passed the Senate last week.
Sen. Paul Miller, chairman of the Senate tax committee, said he think the tax increase is close to getting six votes in favor but said Monday he's not confident it has enough votes yet to pass.
"If we were meeting today, I wouldn't bring it up yet," said Miller, D-Melbourne, who supports the tax increase. "It might pass or it might not. I want to be sure."
Sen. Tracy Steele, the Senate co-sponsor of the tax increase, said he anticpates bringing the bill before the committee Wednesday morning. Steele is also sponsoring legislation that would establish the trauma system to be funded by the tax increase.
"Nothing is definite but we want to move as quickly as possible," said Steele, D-North Little Rock.
Earlier Monday, a Senate committee endorsed a new measure to prohibit drivers from sending text messages and another bill that would restrict cell phone use by younger drivers.
The Senate Committee on Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs had previously OK'd the text-messaging bill, but amended it to add sponsors and make minor changes to the language.
The committee also advanced a House bill that bans cell phone use for drivers under age 18. That bill also requires drivers under 21 to use hands-free devices if they use a phone in their car. The bill makes violations a secondary offense, meaning drivers cannot be pulled over simply for phone misuse.
Also Monday, the House passed a bill by Rep. Dawn Creekmore, D-Hensley, that eliminates the statute of limitations in rape cases where DNA evidence is present. Now, such cases must be filed within 15 years of the attack.
"For the victims who have been tormented these many years knowing that their rapist may be out there walking free, don't they deserve the right to know that if their rapist is caught, they can be charged with this crime?" Creekmore asked lawmakers.
The bill, which passed 98-1, now heads to the Senate.
Rep. Bill Abernathy, D-Mena, said Monday he planned to introduce a bill to pay for increases in insurance premiums for public school teachers in Arkansas.
Abernathy's bill would contain $25 million to keep the insurance levels steady for the teachers.
"I would hope that everyone in the House would sign as cosponsors," said Abernathy, chairman of the House Education Committee.
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