Ethics changes, court rules among first bills Arkansas lawmakers file for 2015 session



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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Arkansas lawmakers moved to clarify new ethics rules contained in a constitutional amendment and to make a renewed attempt at writing court rules Monday as they began filing legislation for next year's session.

The two pieces of legislation filed by late Monday were "shell bills" — meaning they didn't include specific proposals — but indicated two of the major issues facing lawmakers when they convene for the session on Jan. 12.

One of the bills is aimed at clarifying how to enforce a constitutional amendment voters approved Nov. 4 that imposes several new ethics restrictions on elected officials. The amendment bans most lobbyist gifts to elected officials, bars corporate contributions to state campaigns and lengthens the amount of time before a legislator can become a lobbyist from one to two years.

Democratic Rep. Warwick Sabin and Republican Sen. Jon Woods, who had sponsored the amendment, introduced legislation Monday to allow the ethics restrictions to be enforced. Woods said the legislation will allow the Ethics Commission to enforce the new rules and will be aimed at answering lawmakers' questions about the new restrictions.

"We filed the bill to create the discussion and let everyone know we're aware this requires follow-up legislation," Woods said.

Republican Sen. Eddie Joe Williams filed a separate measure to refer to voters a proposed constitutional amendment regarding civil claims and court procedures. Williams said the proposal would be similar to a measure that deadlocked before a Senate panel last year that would have allowed lawmakers to write court rules for civil cases.

The proposal last year had the backing of several business groups, including the state Chamber of Commerce, which argued the change was needed to address recent court rulings that overturned parts of a 2003 tort reform law Arkansas enacted. But it faced heavy opposition from trial lawyers, who warned that transferring that power to lawmakers would politicize the state's courts.

Williams said his latest proposal would likely be more limited in what rules the Legislature would have authority over.

The proposal could face a hurdle, with Democrats holding four of the eight seats on the State Agencies Committee that will take up the measure. Williams said he was hopeful about its chances.

"I'm hoping they see the need for lawsuit reform in the state of Arkansas and that's not a partisan issue," Williams said. "That's for the people of Arkansas."


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