Changes to the state's unemployment law — meant to expand benefits and help Arkansas tap into $59 million in federal stimulus funds — are cruising through the Legislature as lawmakers head into the final stretch of the session.

Changes to the state's unemployment law — meant to expand benefits and help Arkansas tap into $59 million in federal stimulus funds — are cruising through the Legislature as lawmakers head into the final stretch of the session.
The overhaul of the state's unemployment benefits law passed the Senate on a 19-7 vote Thursday, after some lawmakers raised concerns that Arkansas may be saddled with the additional costs of the enhancements after the federal money runs out. The bill now heads to the House.
The legislation changes the amount of time the state uses to calculate unemployed workers' benefits, which the state estimates would add about 1,650 people a year to the benefit program and is a requirement for using the stimulus money.
After complaining that he had received mixed messages from federal officials, Gov. Mike Beebe this week said that the state would accept the federal money for unemployment. He said he had received written assurances that the state wouldn't have to continue the enhanced benefits after the federal funds run out.
Some lawmakers, however, said they were skeptical whether that would be the case.
"I personally don't feel confident" that the state won't be obligated later to pay for the benefit expansion, said Sen. Terry Smith, D-Hot Springs, who didn't vote on the proposal.
Sen. Tracy Steele, D-North Little Rock, the bill's sponsor, said the legislation also puts into law two changes required by the federal government that the Department of Workforce Services already has adopted as policy. One would allow benefits for people seeking part-time work and the other would allow benefits for someone who quit work because of a compelling emergency.
The measure also increases the amount of an employee's salary that businesses must pay unemployment taxes on, from $10,000 to $12,000 starting in 2010. The increase would bring in an additional $46 million annually for the benefits, the department said.
Representatives of both the state Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO said they backed the increase.
The vote fell along party lines in the Senate, with seven of the chamber's eight Republicans voting against the measure and 19 of the chamber's 27 Democrats voting for it. Eight Democrats and one Republican didn't vote on the proposal.
Sen. Kim Hendren of Gravette, who voted against the proposal, accused federal officials of tying strings to the stimulus money and taking away the state's power. Hendren said he doubted that the expanded benefits would be rolled back later.
"What member of the Legislature when this money runs out is going to vote for or introduce legislation to cut those benefits?" Hendren said after the vote.
Workforce services officials said that another provision in the proposal would end up saving the state about $25 million each year: changing the amount of time before workers fired for misconduct can receive benefits.
The Senate also gave final approval to legislation requiring indoor tanning facilities to get permission from parents before teenagers can climb under the tanning lamps. The bill, which was approved on a 34-1 vote, would require tanning salons to get parents of customers younger than 18 to sign a consent form that includes a warning about the dangers of repeated exposure to ultraviolet light from the tanning lamps.
The proposal does not include any penalties for not getting that consent. It also does not include any enforcement mechanism for the new requirement.
The measure heads to Gov. Mike Beebe's desk.
A number of states are considering similar restrictions, which are aimed at preventing skin cancer among teenagers.
By a 35-0 vote, the Senate also approved legislation to provide a 15 percent rebate on production costs for making television shows, movies or commercials in the state. The proposal has already passed the House. It now heads back to that chamber to consider a Senate amendment.
On the House side, lawmakers voted 71-18 in favor of a bill that gives cities and counties the ability to condemn industrial plants in limited circumstances.
The bill by Rep. John Lowery, D-El Dorado, is targeted at idle poultry plants that have left hundreds of people — and poultry growers — out of a job. Both El Dorado and Clinton have seen closures of their Pilgrim's Pride plants.
Lowery said the measure was needed to help move along the sale of a plant.
"This is a desperate, desperate tool that may be needed for those industries that have not dealt in good faith," he said.
Earlier Thursday, the House Judiciary Committee advanced a proposal by Sen. Hank Wilkins IV, D-Pine Bluff, that sets up a hotline for people to report racial-profiling incidents. The bill, which has passed the Senate, has the backing of Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.
The Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee backed round-the-clock alcohol sales at racetracks in Hot Springs and West Memphis. The proposal, which heads to the Senate for a vote, allows the sale of alcohol during the hours the tracks are open. The Southland Park greyhound track in West Memphis is open 24 hours a day on weekends and until 4 a.m. during the week. The thoroughbred track at Hot Springs, Oaklawn Park, is open from 11 a.m. until 3 a.m.
Now, the tracks have to stop serving alcohol at 2 a.m. The bill includes exemptions for Easter and Christmas.
The committee also recommended that a joint panel consider amending the state's constitution to allow a state lawmaker to serve a total of 14 years in the General Assembly. Now, someone can serve in the House of Representatives for three terms — or six years — and someone can serve in the Senate for eight years, or two terms.
The Legislature can refer three amendments to voters, and a joint hearing is scheduled next week to consider seven recommended by a Senate panel and three recommended by a House panel.
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Associated Press Writer Andrew DeMillo contributed to this report.