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Laying low and considering options

Two potential Democratic challengers to U.S. Sen. Blanche Lincoln’s re-election bid are playing it close to the vest as the March political filing period approaches.

A campaign spokesman for Lt. Gov. Bill Halter says today nothing has changed as Halter eyes a political shift.

“The lieutenant governor continues to focus on his re-election while also considering the available options to best serve Arkansans,” says Halter campaign pitchman Bud Jackson.

Meanwhile, state Senate President Pro Tem Bob Johnson, who previously made noises about a possible U.S. Senate run, says today he is focusing on the current legislative fiscal session and intends to “lay low” for now.

“We’re talking about two subject matters: budget and lottery,” Johnson says.

The one-week filing period for political office starts March 1. The fiscal session is scheduled to recess March 2 and adjourn March 9.

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Halter for U.S. Senate?

Democratic Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s spokesman has offered a response — of a sort — to speculation by Washington Post columnist Chris Cillizza that Halter may launch a primary campaign for incumbent Democrat Blanche Lincoln’s U.S. Senate seat.

“The lieutenant governor appreciates the potential plans that others have for him. He continues to raise money for re-election,” Halter spokesman Garry Hoffmann said today when asked about Cillizza’s column.

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Speaker Wills, trade ambassador

Not to be outdone by the lieutenant governor, House Speaker Robbie Wills today signed his own letter of agreement with Chinese officials.

On behalf of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Democrat from Conway represented Arkansas in a signing ceremony for a memorandum of understanding between Arkansas and the Chinese Investment Promotion Agency of China’s Ministry of Commerce. AEDC says in a news release the parties have agreed to work together to promote investment between Arkansas and China.

Last week, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter announced he had signed a letter of intent to increase trade between Arkansas and China’s Henan Province. Unlike Halter, though, Wills did not go to China to sign his document. The signing ceremony was part of a forum on China-U.S. trade held in Phoenix.

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Halter to testify on lottery

The man who put Arkansas’ state-run lottery on the ballot in 2008 will be among the witnesses offering testimony when legislation to set up the lottery makes its debut in House and Senate committees Tuesday.

Lt. Gov. Bill Halter will testify for the legislation in the House Rules and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs committees, spokesman Garry Hoffmann advises. The committees will consider matching bills by House Speaker Robbie Wills, D-Conway, and Sen. Terry Smith, D-Hot Springs.

Halter previously has urged legislators to include strict ethics rules in the legislation, create a simple application process for the scholarships the lottery will fund and offer large scholarship amounts.

Asked if Halter’s testimony Tuesday will include a request for amendments to the lottery bills, Hoffmann declined to comment.

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To each his own

Lt. Gov. Bill Halter says it’s OK with him if his crowning achievement — a state lottery — isn’t Gov. Mike Beebe’s top priority in the upcoming legislative session.

Beebe says balancing the state budget, funding public education and cutting the grocery tax are higher on his to-do list for the session than creating a structure for the lottery Halter pushed and voters approved in the November general election.

But incoming House Speaker Robbie Wills and Senate leader-to-be Bob Johnson this week identified the lottery issue as their main focus for the session that convenes Monday.

Halter says today, “Everybody’s going to have different points of view about that, and there are several significant issues obviously before the Legislature … People just rank them differently, and that’s fine.”

Halter briefly ran against Beebe as a candidate for governor in 2006 before switching to a campaign for lieutenant governor. The former Clinton administration official then led the effort to put the lottery measure before voters as a way to fund college scholarships. Beebe didn’t take a stand on the lottery until announcing as he left the voting booth he had voted against it.

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Lottery on ice?

Two groups opposed to a state-run lottery want legislators to ignore the lottery-authorizing amendment voters approved on Election Day.

United Methodists Against Gambling announced today it will ask legislators to forego writing rules for creating and operating a state lottery next year. Instead, the group wants lawmakers to refer to the 2010 general election a proposed constitutional amendment to restrict the definition of state lotteries to exclude all games of chance except the sale of lottery tickets.

Jerry Cox of the Family Council says his group supports the idea of a constitutional amendment in 2010 that either defines lotteries in the state constitution or bans casinos.

One lawmaker whose committee would help write rules for running a state lottery says it would be “insulting to the people of Arkansas” for the Legislature to ignore the will of the electorate.

Senate State Agencies chairman Steve Faris, D-Malvern, says he’s willing to discuss any and all ideas, but he says asking the Legislature to reject what voters overwhelmingly approved is not an option.

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Beebe votes no on lottery

A state lottery is not the ticket for Arkansas, according to Gov. Mike Beebe.

Beebe, who has said for more than a year he was undecided on the issue, voted today against a proposed constitutional amendment to create a state-run lottery to fund college scholarships.

Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said the governor weighed the advantages of a lottery, including the potential to offer more scholarships and to keep money in the state that Arkansans are now spending on other states’ lotteries, against the disadvantage of a potential negative economic impact “on some people in our state who can least afford it.”

Concerns about the impact on the poor “weighed a little heavier in the end, especially with the economic picture like it is,” DeCample said.

Beebe cast his ballot at a polling site in his hometown of Searcy after a 40-minute wait.

Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who proposed the lottery amendment, cast his ballot today at a North Little Rock polling place. On the way in Halter told reporters he was confident voters would approve the measure.

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Beebe: Lottery position changes daily

Gov. Mike Beebe says his position on a proposed state-run lottery changes depending on the day of the week.

“This is one of those deals where it depends on what day of the week I wake up,” Beebe said today on his monthly call-in radio program on the Arkansas Radio Network. “One day I decide I’m going to vote for it and the next day I wake up and decide I’m not going to vote for it.”

Proposed Constitutional Amendment 3 would authorize the Legislature to create a lottery to fund college scholarships. Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, who proposed the amendment, has said the lottery could raise $100 million a year.

Beebe said he would love to have the money for college scholarships, and he understands that many Arkansans are already crossing state lines to buy lottery tickets. He said he also understands the argument of some lottery opponents that gambling can hurt families.

“I honestly don’t know how I’m going to vote and won’t know until I get in that booth,” he said.

Beebe said he would reveal afterward how he voted on the ballot question.

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Arkansas Poll

Arkansans appear ready to back John McCain for president on Nov. 4, according to results of the annual Arkansas Poll released Thursday.

The poll shows McCain with a 51 percent to 36 percent lead over Barack Obama among registered voters. The poll by the University of Arkansas has a margin of error of 2.5 percentage points.

Results of the comprehensive survey can be found at the Arkansas Poll Web site.

When asked about Initiated Act 1, which would prohibit unmarried couples living together from adopting or foster parenting children, 55 percent of respondents said they opposed the measure proposed by the conservative Family Council.

Arkansans do seem to like Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s proposal for a state-run lottery to fund college scholarships, with 65 percent of those polled saying they favored Proposed Constitutional Amendment 3.

An overwhelming 56 percent of respondents said the economy was the most important issue facing Arkansans today. Last year, about 29 percent cited the economy as the key issue,

“In our 10 years of polling, no issue has ever been ranked that high,” said Janine Parry, a UA political science professor and director of the Arkansas Poll.

Also, only 27 percent of Arkansans said they approved of the job President Bush is doing. That’s substantially down from the president’s first year in office, when 87 percent approved of his job.

Approval ratings for other politicians were: Gov. Mike Beebe, 74 percent; Sen. Blanche Lincoln, D-Ark., 54 percent; Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., 56 percent; Rep. Marion Berry, D-Gillett, 50 percent; Rep. Vic Snyder, D-Little Rock, 57 percent; Rep. John Boozman, R-Rogers, 52 percent; and Rep. Mike Ross, D-Prescott, 62 percent.

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It’s a girl

Lt. Gov. Bill Halter and his wife, Shanti, are celebrating their own set of winning numbers today: 6 pounds, 8 ounces and 19.5 inches long.

Those are the birth measurements of Julia Nancy Halter, born today at Baptist Health Medical Center in North Little Rock.

Julia is the Halters’ second pre-election baby. The couple’s first daughter, Lauren, was born shortly before the November 2006 election that ushered Bill Halter into office as lieutenant governor.

“God has blessed us with a second beautiful, healthy baby girl,” Halter said in a news release issued by his office. “Mother and daughter are doing great. Lauren is very excited about her new baby sister and I couldn’t be happier. We want to thank everyone who has kept us in their thoughts and prayers.”

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