LITTLE ROCK, Ark.
The Arkansas Senate voted Wednesday to bar drivers from using handheld cell phones near schools and highway work zones, going a step beyond a less restrictive bill that struggled to get out of the House this week.
The ban passed on an 18-12 vote in the 35-member Senate and was sent to the House for a vote.
The proposal, among several approved by lawmakers Wednesday, would exempt the use of hands-free phones and GPS devices. A violation would be a secondary offense, meaning drivers could only be cited if they were first pulled over for a primary offense such as speeding.
"This will protect two very vulnerable groups of people," said Sen. Jerry Taylor, D-Pine Bluff, the measure's sponsor.
The measure may face a challenge in the House, which initially voted down a similar restriction aimed only at drivers in school zones. The House approved the ban on Tuesday, a day after initially rejecting the measure. That ban, proposed by Democratic Rep. Fred Allen of Little Rock, is now pending before a Senate committee.
Sen. Gilbert Baker, who voted against Taylor's measure, said he was worried the restriction may go too far.
"At what point does government stop micromanaging?" Baker, R-Conway, said.
Senators also approved banning the sale of "herbal snuff" to anyone under the age of 18. The flavored product is similar to chewing tobacco but often touted as a safer alternative, since it doesn't contain tobacco.
Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, the proposed ban's sponsor, said children as young as 8 years old are buying herbal snuff to try to imitate adults who use smokeless tobacco. Under the bill, anyone convicted of violating the ban would be fined.
Jeffress, D-Crossett, said the product could be a gateway into tobacco use.
"I see it simply as a ploy to get them hooked on a product that is deadly," Jeffress told the Senate.
Some lawmakers questioned whether the state was being too restrictive by prohibiting the sale of a non-tobacco product that doesn't have the same harmful effects. It was approved on a 28-4 vote and now heads to the House.
The Senate unanimously approved legislation aimed at limiting the retirement benefits for the state lottery's director and top two officials. The proposal, which now heads to the House, would only count the base salary for calculating a state employee's retirement benefits.
The lottery commission is currently allowed to pay more than the limit set as the base salary for the director, internal auditor and chief operating officer.
Also on Wednesday, a House committee advanced ethics legislation that would require former lawmakers to wait a year after leaving office before they could register as lobbyists and how much legislators could receive in travel reimbursements. An identical measure cleared a Senate committee on Tuesday.
House Speaker Robert Moore sponsored the bill. He said the year-long "cooling off" period is a compromise to improve the proposal's chances of passing. It would apply to lawmakers elected after the proposal takes effect, so it would not affect some current lawmakers.
"I know that there are some in the Assembly who think the bill goes too far, it's not necessary," Moore told the House Rules Committee. "There are some that think that it does not go far enough."
The House and Senate are expected to vote on the identical bills Monday.
Gov. Mike Beebe on Wednesday called the ethics legislation "progress" and said he'll sign it if passed by both the House and Senate. Beebe had previously said he preferred a two-year cooling off period that would include all current lawmakers.
The measure also would cap travel reimbursement costs for lawmakers at whichever is the least expensive, flying or driving. Legislators could take the more expensive trip but would be reimbursed only for the cheaper way.
The House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee advanced legislation that would allow the state to suspend or revoke a contractor's license for knowingly employing workers not authorized to work in the United States. The measure's sponsor, Rep. Jim Nickels, said the bill is aimed at cracking down on the hiring of illegal immigrants.
Associated Press Writer Jeannie Nuss contributed to this report.