- Associated Press - Monday, January 9, 2017

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - This year’s Arkansas legislative session, which began Monday, has Republicans facing divisions over competing tax cut plans months after the party expanded its majorities in the Legislature.

Disagreements on tax cuts, questions about how to set up a voter-approved medical marijuana program and uncertainty about the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion are among the top issues facing the Legislature in the coming months. House and Senate leaders urged colleagues to find civility and common ground as the 91st General Assembly convened.

“Without a doubt, this session is going to be full of challenges,” Senate President Jonathan Dismang said after he was sworn in for a second term leading the 35-member chamber.

He also said he wanted lawmakers to soon take up competing tax cut plans, including Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s $50 million proposal to reduce taxes for low-income residents. Hutchinson faces resistance from fellow Republicans, who want deeper cuts that will take effect sooner.

“I think it should be something we take a look at on the first end because of its impact on the forecast and the total budgeting process,” the Republican from Beebe told reporters.

House Speaker Jeremy Gillam wants to spend the next couple weeks seeing how comfortable representatives are with the dueling tax cut proposals.

“We’re going to be a little patient, and at the end of the day I have supreme confidence that we’ll be able to come to an agreement on a particular path forward and be able to move in a relatively responsible time frame,” the Republican from Judsonia told reporters.

Republicans hold 76 of 100 seats in the House and 26 of the 35 Senate seats after the November election and the defection of three Democratic lawmakers to the GOP. Democrats, however, hold half the seats on the panel that’s expected to take up the tax cut plans.

The top Democrat in the Senate said he’s encouraged that Hutchinson’s plan would help poorer residents, but urged caution on any proposals at this point.

“The easiest thing in the world is to come down here and cut taxes, but the hardest thing in the world is to cut taxes responsibly,” Senate Minority Leader Keith Ingram said.

The Legislature must figure out how to implement the constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana, looking at a bill that would give agencies more time to finalize the rules for the drug’s sales. Opponents are pushing for additional restriction on the drug, including limits on the types of marijuana products that can be sold.

It’s unclear when lawmakers will take up legislation reauthorizing the state’s hybrid Medicaid expansion, especially as Congress looks at repealing the federal health care law that enabled the program. Continuing the program another year will require three-fourths support in the House and Senate.

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

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