State Capitol Week in Review
From Senator Larry Teague
February 17, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – After a lengthy and impassioned debate, the Senate voted to refer to voters a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit attorneys’ fees in civil lawsuits and limit the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded.
The measure is Senate Joint Resolution 8. The Senate vote is a virtual guarantee that it will be one of the proposed constitutional amendments that the legislature will refer to voters this session. In each regular session the legislature may refer up to three, although it has sometimes referred fewer than three.
This year the Senate and the House each will select a proposed amendment, and SJR 8 will be the Senate’s choice. Both bodies will have to agree on a third proposal.
The proposed amendments will be on the general election ballot in November of 2018.
SJR 8 would limit contingency fees charged by attorneys in civil lawsuits to a third of the net recovery.
Punitive and non-economic damages would be limited to $250,000, or to three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded. The resolution defines non-economic damages as those that cannot be defined in money, including pain and suffering, mental and emotional stress, loss of life or companionship, visible result of injury and physical impairment.
The Senate also amended HB 1249, which would allow staff at state-supported colleges and universities to carry a concealed firearm if they have a permit. The amendment requires them to take an additional 16 hours of training.
Even if they are licensed to carry a firearm and have taken the required 16 hours of additional training, the amendment would not allow them to take a gun into a meeting at which their job performance, grievances or disciplinary matters were being discussed.
Also, they still could not take the weapon into a child care facility on the campus, nor could they carry their firearm into a dormitory.
Adding the amendment means that HB 1249 must be reconsidered by the House before it becomes law. The House Judiciary Committee would vote on the amended version of the bill, and if the committee advanced it the entire House would vote on the amended bill.
In other news the governor signed SB 125 to allow maternity leave of up to four weeks with pay for state employees. It is now Act 182.
The act will not cost the state money because the leave will come from time donated by fellow workers into a catastrophic leave bank. Employees may use their maternity leave within the first 12 weeks after the birth or adoption of their baby. They will not have to exhaust their annual leave or sick leave in order to qualify for maternity leave.
The Senate approved SB 123 to make permanent a pilot program that requires welfare recipients to take drug tests. In the pilot program, 3,040 recipients were asked if they used drugs, and based on their answers 17 of them were red-flagged. Of those, 11 refused to take a drug test and lost their benefits for six months.
Another two tested positive and because they refused to go into drug counseling they also lost their benefits for six months. SB 123 was sent to the House, where it was referred to the Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.