- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 27, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas lawmakers advanced a plan Wednesday to move the state’s primaries from May to March, a change that would apply only to next year’s elections when two candidates with Arkansas ties are seeking the White House.

The Senate voted 28-6 late Wednesday in favor of a revised proposal that would limit the change to 2016. The original legislation, which would have made the move to March permanent, failed twice in Senate committee and was held up in party-line gridlock on the Senate floor.

The move would make Arkansas part of a planned regional nominating contest among southeastern states called the “SEC Primary,” a reference to college athletics’ Southeastern Conference.

“It gives members the opportunity, or really the public, to see if it’s something that’s going to work,” Senate President Jonathan Dismang, a Republican from Beebe, told reporters before the vote. “There was just some hesitancy about making it something permanent.”

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee is seeking the Republican presidential nomination. Former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, who was Arkansas’ first lady for 12 years, is seeking the Democratic nomination.

The proposal heads to the House, which supported an initial version of the primary change without the compromise earlier Wednesday in a 56-32 vote.

The primary change has had the backing of the state’s top Republicans, including the state GOP chairman and Gov. Asa Hutchinson. The governor’s office said he supported the compromise measure backed by the Senate.

But several Republicans in the House bucked party leadership and opposed the move.

Rep. Nate Bell, of Mena, was one of the Republicans who spoke against the legislation. An alternative by Bell that would have delayed the move until 2018 and asked for a detailed study failed in a House committee Tuesday.

“This bill has anti-family overtones,” Bell said. “Our families are subjected to a lot of negativity and a lot of stress because we choose to run for public office. … We’re about to add several months to that intense scrutiny, and we’re going to put it right over the holiday period when families should be families and not dealing with campaigns.”

Democratic leaders in the majority-GOP Legislature have also criticized the move, questioning the need to stretch out the campaign calendar. A proposal that would have only moved up the presidential primary stalled before the Legislature earlier this year, and Hutchinson included the renewed attempt at the primary change on the agenda for a special session that began Tuesday.

House Minority Leader Rep. Eddie Armstrong, of North Little Rock, said late Wednesday the Democratic caucus as a whole was not on board with the compromise.

“I remain a bit disappointed in that the governor placed a call sheet together that was under his discretion that we were all under the impression would be about economic development issues,” Armstrong said. “I don’t know if I would call it a failure, but something has left the tracks … and now you see leaders and people from the executive branch scrambling to get passage.”

Lawmakers also approved a companion measure to move the start of next year’s legislative session from February from April, with the House approving that change on a 69-15 vote and the Senate backing a similar plan 33-0. Like the SEC Primary bill, the Senate-backed measure on the legislative session would apply only to next year.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo and Claudia Lauer at www.twitter.com/claudialauer


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