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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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From the speaker’s mouth

State Rep. Dan Greenberg, R-Little Rock, notes in a blog post that House Speaker Robbie Wills, D-Conway, is claiming an answer he gave to an Arkansas News Bureau reporter in a recent interview was incorrectly paraphrased.

The interview was about Wills’ announcement this week that the House’s information office will transition from a purely informational office into an office that advocates for House members. For the record, here is the way the reporter paraphrased his question and Wills’ answer:

“Asked if the office’s new role as an advocate for the Democrat-controlled House would mean advocating Democratic positions, Wills said the office would advocate the objectives of the House leadership.”

And here is the actual exchange, taken verbatim from a recording of the interview:

Arkansas News Bureau: “Since the House is Democrat-controlled, does that mean it (the communications office) will be advocating a Democratic point of view?”

Wills: “No, not necessarily. It’s going to advocate the objectives of the leadership of the House of Representatives. That’s, I think, consistent with what you’ll find with communications offices all around the country. We have a particular point of view as opposed to the executive and judicial branch, and we feel like our communications office should help us communicate that point of view.”

Arkansas News Bureau: “So if, say, another issue like the tobacco tax came up, this agency would be working to advocate for passage of the cigarette tax?”

Wills: “If it’s a leadership initiative, taken on by the leadership of the House of Representatives, that’s an appropriate function for the communications office.”

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Honoring Mahony

Former state Rep. Jodie Mahony of El Dorado received a standing ovation today at a joint meeting of the House and Senate Education Committees.

Mahony,  who also served in the Senate and is now an assistant to House Speaker Robbie Wills, was honored for sponsoring Act 102 of 2003, which requires Arkansas high schools to offer Advanced Placement courses in the four core subjects: math, English, science and social studies.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, who worked with Mahony on the legislation, presented him with a framed map of the U.S. with school districts that offer AP courses shaded in green. Arkansas was one of the greenest states on the map.

Elliott said the before the legislation passed, only 35 percent of districts in the state offered AP courses. Starting with the 2009-2010 school year, 100 percent of districts in the state will be required to offer the courses.

“Thank you for a wonderful surprise,” Mahony said.

The College Board provided the framed map. Identical maps were given previously to Elliott, Gov. Mike Beebe and the state Department of Education.

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It’s a girl

House Speaker Robbie Wills reports that his wife, Dana, gave birth to the couple’s second child, Alley Reece Wills, at 3:30 p.m. today. Alley weighs in at 7 pounds and is 19 1/2 inches long.

Alley has an older sister, Rylee, age 7. Alley’s arrival was an early birthday present for the speaker, who celebrates his 41st birthday tomorrow.

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Conway eye doctor announces House run

Conway ophthalmologist Steve Magie says he hopes to succeed the term-limited Robbie Wills in the state House.

Magie says he will kick off his campaign for the Democratic nomination for House District 46 at 5 p.m. today at Centennial Country Club in Conway.

“I believe Conway is one of the best places in Arkansas to live and raise a family because of the shared values of this community,” Magie said in a statement. “I will demonstrate those values of hard work and straightforward respect to continue the exemplary representation of our area has had under Speaker Wills.”

Magie maintains offices in Conway, Little Rock and Fort Smith.

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Crime Victims’ Rights Week

It’s National Crime Victims’ Rights Week, and state lawmakers are taking the opportunity to note laws the Legislature passed this session that seek to combat crime and promote victims’ rights.

House Speaker Robbie Wills of Conway comments on seven new laws, including Act 974 of 2009, also known as Juli’s Law, which provides for the collection of a DNA sample from a person arrested on suspicion of capital murder, first-degree murder, kidnapping or first- or second-degree sexual assault. The legislation, sponsored by Rep. Dawn Creekmore of East End, is named for Juli Busken, a Benton woman who was killed in 1996 while a student at the University of Oklahoma and whose killer was identified several years later through DNA evidence.

Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock, who spoke at the state Capitol today during a news conference on Crime Victims’ Rights Week, said later she was pleased to have worked with Rep. Lindsley Smith of Fayetteville on Act 619 of 2009, which prohibits insurance companies from discriminating unfairly against victims of domestic abuse.

Elliott said she was not aware of any incidents of this type of discrimination in Arkansas, but she said some victims of domestic violence in other states have been denied coverage because of a so-called “pre-existing condition,” meaning they were abused in the past.

“Think about what that meant to women and children in particular — that that’s a pre-existing condition, therefore you won’t be covered,” she said.

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Lottery wheels turning

The state lottery should move a step closer to becoming a reality next week, House Speaker Robbie Wills advises.

Wills says he is “shooting for Tuesday” to name his three appointments to the nine-member lottery commission.

The governor, the House speaker and the Senate president pro tem each get to make three appointments to the commission. Sen. Bob Johnson announced his appointments Wednesday, the same day Gov. Mike Beebe signed legislation to create the commission.

Johnson named former congressman, university president and state Supreme Court justice Ray Thornton to a six-year term, businesswoman Patty L. Shipp of Morrilton to a four-year term and Little Rock lawyer Derrick W. Smith to a two-year term.

A spokseman for Gov. Mike Beebe said he did not know when Beebe would announce his appointments.

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Bad budget news coming?

State finance officials are expected to provide an updated revenue forecast to the Joint Budget Committee this week, and House Speaker Robbie Wills, D-Conway, doesn’t expect it to be pretty.

“I’ll let the Department of Finance and Administration speak for themselves, but I think we’re expecting a pessimistic outlook,” Wills said today.

But Wills said he would reserve judgment on whether the Legislature acted too soon to pass a 1 percent cut in the state sales tax on groceries and a three-fourths of a percent cut in the sales tax on manufacturers’ utilities.

“We’re one of the only states in the country who’s even been able to consider tax relief,” he said. “Hopefully, whatever downturn we’re in will be temporary and we’ll pull out of it.”

Richard Weiss, director of the state Department of Finance and Administration, wouldn’t say whether this week’s forecast would be gloomy.

“You’ll need to be there to hear it,” he said.

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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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Lottery bill on schedule for March 11 committee appearance

House Speaker Robbie Wills says work on merging the two halves of the lottery bill — the business model and the scholarship rules — and incorporating suggestions from lawmakers and others is proceeding swiftly, but the legislation may not get filed this week.

Wills informs that he is aiming to file the long-awaited legislation on Friday, but “we reserve the right to take the weekend.”

The bill-filing deadline for the 2009 session is Monday, but because Wills has already filed a shell lottery bill, he can amend the bill at any time.

Whether he amends the bill this week or early next week, Wills says he plans to present the bill in the House Rules Committee on March 11. If that happens, the bill, which has more than 60 House sponsors, could be on the House floor as early as the following day.

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