Today’s legislative update . . .

Courtesy of the Associated Press, here are today’s happenings in our legislature:

• The AP reports that hundreds of people packed the Arkansas Capitol to hear the outcome of several bills that would directly affect the natural gas industry. The House Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development voted down the first of the seven bills Wednesday in a voice vote. The sponsors of six remaining bills withdrew their legislation for further study, which the committee voted to recommend for each bill. The first bill, sponsored by Rep. Homer Lenderman, would have enforced protection of water supplies in areas where drilling occurs. The batch of bills on the agenda was aimed at adding environmental regulations, giving more consideration for landowners and requiring wells to have bonds. Oklahoma City-based Chesapeake Energy Corp. is among several companies that are drilling for natural gas in Arkansas.

• The AP reports that the Arkansas House has voted to raise automobile title fees to help fund the pension system for state troopers. By a 63-20 vote, the House passed the proposal that’s estimated to raise an additional $4.6 million for the Arkansas State Police retirement system. It would hike title certificate fees from $1 to $2, and title application fees from $4 to $8. The state police pension program has struggled for years, and in 1997 lawmakers changed the retirement system so it would pay less in benefits to participants and survivors. Lawmakers in 2009 approved $9 million in one-time money for the program and also approved merging its assets with the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System. The measure now heads to Gov. Mike Beebe’s desk for his signature.

• The Arkansas House has approved cutting taxes on groceries, used cars and manufacturers’ utility bills that are part of a $35 million package agreed to by the governor and legislative leaders, reports the AP. The House voted 96-0 Wednesday to pass the half-cent grocery tax cut advocated by Beebe. It’s estimated to cost the state nearly $21 million in the coming fiscal year and will cut the tax from 2 percent to 1.5 percent. Beebe had run for re-election last year on a promise to continue cutting the grocery tax. He’s agreed to sign into law five other tax cuts. The House voted 93-0 for the used car tax cut and 94-0 for the manufacturers’ tax cut. All three head back to the Senate to consider amendments made in the House.

• The Arkansas Senate has voted to send a diesel fuel tax bill back to committee, according to the AP. The move on Wednesday came a day after the bill was rushed out of the Transportation Committee with several members absent. Republican Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson asked for the re-referral as the afternoon session got under way. Sen. Linda Chesterfield, the transportation chairman, was away from her seat. Hutchinson says committee Republicans want to amend the bill. The measure is a key part of Democratic House Speaker Robert Moore’s highway package.

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