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Heckler apologizes

A repentant Rep. Mark Martin apologized today for heckling a fellow member on the House floor in the middle of the cigarette tax debate Thursday.

The Republican lawmaker from Prairie Grove interrupted Rep. Gregg Reep, D-Warren, while Reep was presenting House Bill 1204, the bill to raise the tax on tobacco products to fund a trauma system and other health programs. The hotly debated bill passed in a 75-24 vote, receiving just enough “yes” votes to reach the necessary three-fourths majority.

As part of his presentation, Reep was explaining that Arkansas balances its budget when Martin shouted “It’s the law!” Martin was referring to constitutional mandate that the Legislature approve a balanced budget. House Speaker Robbie Wills of Conway later cautioned the membership about breaches of decorum.

At the start of today’s House session, Martin took the floor and said his behavior the day before did not live up to the House’s standards or his own.

“Sometimes even the smallest mistake can set us on a slippery slope that we don’t even realize actually will push the whole institution down,” Martin said.

House members applauded his remarks. Wills later termed the apology “very appropriate.”


Crossing party lines

Rep. Rick Green isn’t alone anymore.

The Republican from Van Buren was the only sitting GOP legislator to attend a news conference Monday in support of Gov. Mike Beebe’s proposal to fund a statewide trauma system and other health programs with tobacco tax increases. But today he was joined by four other Republican House members who announced their support of the plan.

Robert Dale of Dover, Roy Ragland of Marshall, Bill Sample of Hot Springs and Tim Summers of Bentonville joined Green for an impromptu news conference in the office of House Speaker Robbie Wills, D-Conway.

The GOP lawmakers say they’re not enthusiastic about raising any tax, but they say programs that would be funded through Beebe’s proposed 56-cents-per-pack cigarette tax increase are important to their districts and the state as a whole.

One key issue for members of the Northwest Arkansas delegation from both parties — Beebe’s plan would use a portion of proceeds from the tax increases to fund a new Fayetteville satellite campus of the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences in Little Rock.

Passing the tax increase would require at least 75 votes in the 100-member House. Democrats control 72 seats — but not all Democrats support Beebe’s plan.

Freshman Democrat Gary Smith of Camden says he campaign on a no-tax pledge and plans to keep his word.

Wills says he’s confident the measure will pass the House, and he says he’s not counting on full Democratic support to push it through.


Do-something Legislature?

State Rep. Robbie Wills used a prop to make a point today in his first address to the House as its new speaker.

The Democrat from Conway held up a device he called a “do-nothing” — a novelty item that at one time was offered for sale at his family’s business in Pickles Gap. The device had a crank which, when turned, did nothing.

“Don’t be a do-nothing,” Wills told newly sworn House members. “Be a do-something.”

Wills offered a list of things he wants lawmakers to accomplish this session, starting with going beyond adequacy in funding public education.

Wills says he also wants to continue investing in work force training, fund infrastructure improvements, extend broadband access to every area of the state and promote job growth.

He urges lawmakers to be “ambitious” on health care issues, funding a statewide trauma system, community health centers, in-home care for the elderly, cancer treatment and Medicaid and expansion of the ARKids First health coverage program for the children of Arkansas’ working poor.

Wills urged House members to make the “courageous decision” to raise the cigarette tax to pay for health care projects because “it’s the right thing to do.”

Wills named chairmen and vice chairmen to a number of House committees, a list of which can be found here.


Capital city tops in trauma care

If Arkansas gets a statewide system of trauma centers, the hospitals offering the top level of care are likely to be concentrated in the capital city, according to state Department of Health Director Paul Halverson.

Trauma centers are classified as Level 1, 2 or 3, with Level 1 centers offering the highest level of care. Halverson told a legislative panel today the hospitals in the state that could attain Level 1 status relatively quickly are Arkansas Children’s Hospital, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and Baptist Health Medical Center, all located in Little Rock.

That means hospitals in neighboring states would continue receiving some Arkansas trauma patients even under a fully developed statewide trauma system, Halverson said. It also highlights the need for Level 2 and 3 centers across the state, he said.

“We don’t have the time to take all these patients to Central Arkansas,” he said.