- Associated Press - Thursday, May 28, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas is poised to move its primaries from May to March next year after lawmakers gave final approval Thursday to a measure supporters say would give the state a greater say in deciding the presidential nominees.

By a 67-16 vote, the House sent Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson legislation to move the primaries as part of an effort to create a regional presidential nominating contest that supporters have dubbed the “SEC primary.” Hutchinson plans to sign the legislation into law.

“I want to thank both houses for coming together and making it possible for Arkansans to have a meaningful vote in the next presidential election,” Hutchinson said in a statement released by his office.

The move comes as Arkansas is preparing for a White House race that features two candidates with state ties. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee is seeking the Republican nomination, and Democratic hopeful former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton served 12 years as the state’s first lady.

The primary calendar change would expire after next year under a compromise Senate leaders struck to end a deadlock in that chamber over the move.

“I think if we see the increased voter turnout that we expect, that will make a stronger argument to make a permanent change in the future,” Republican Rep. Andy Davis of Little Rock, who sponsored the proposal, said earlier Thursday.

The measure still faced opposition from Democratic leaders in both chambers of the majority-GOP Legislature, with some Republicans also questioning the need for such a move.

The proposal had the backing of top Republicans in the state, including Hutchinson and the state GOP chairman. Three of the 64 Republicans in the House opposed the move, and nine of the chamber’s 36 Democrats supported it.

“Making a temporary move that would then potentially move back only serves to greater increased voter confusion,” Republican Rep. Nate Bell, who opposed the change, said before the vote.

The House also approved by a 73-11 vote a companion measure that would move the start of next year’s legislative session from February to April. Like the primary change, the move would only apply to next year.

The measures were approved at the end of a special session Hutchinson had convened to take up an $87 million incentive package aimed at luring a defense project to south Arkansas. A proposal to only move the presidential primary earlier stalled before the Legislature earlier this year.

The bill’s future was less certain earlier Thursday after opponents requested an estimate on how much changing the primary date would change. The House voted to suspend a rule requiring such a report, which would have delayed a vote on the measure until Friday. A report from the Bureau of Legislative Research released later Thursday said the primary change wouldn’t have any additional cost to the state.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo


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