LITTLE ROCK In January 2005, Robbie Wills, a Conway resident, started his first term as state representative with a modest goal: learn the ins and outs of the Legislature and carry a bill that dealt with county revenue appropriations.
Four years later, Wills, 41, is preparing to lead the 100-member House of Representatives and shake out the details of his most complicated legislation yet how Arkansas' lottery should operate.
** ADVANCE FOR MONDAY, JAN. 5 ** In this Tuesday, Dec. 30, 2008, photo, incoming House Speaker Rep. Robbie Wills, D-Conway, is interviewed at the Arkansas state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
"To run for speaker of the House in this era of term limits, you pretty much have to decide your first term that that's something you're going to do," Wills, a Democrat, said in an interview last week.
Wills was first elected in 2004 to the House after serving as a justice of the peace in Faulkner County. Wills, a lawyer, lives in Conway with his wife, Dana, and 7-year-old daughter, Rylee. They are expecting their second child in May.
Wills was elected as speaker-elect in a 98-0 vote in January 2008. He succeeds outgoing House Speaker Benny Petrus, D-Stuttgart. Wills' victory in the speaker's race which at one point featured seven members interested in the job was assured when Rep. David Dunn withdrew from the race due to a lack of support.
"It's happened very quickly kind of a natural progression, from being a new member to being a committee chair to being the speaker-designate," Wills said.
Voters set one of the legislators' top priorities when they overwhelmingly approved a measure in November that authorizes a state-run lottery to fund college scholarships. It's up to lawmakers to decide how Arkansas' lottery is run and how the scholarships are awarded.
"We've just been quietly listening to every point of view, crafting the legislation it's going to be a very detailed bill," he said. "It's the most detailed bill that I've worked on since I've been here."
Wills said he favors the creation of an independent, state-owned corporation that would administer and manage the state lottery.
"The most successful lotteries in the country, as far as generating revenue for the programs, are the ones that have this model," he said. "They have the flexibility to run as a business, rather than a bureaucracy."
Lawmakers must also spell out how the scholarships are awarded whether they should be part of existing scholarship programs or an entirely new program. Eligibility for the scholarships must also be determined, such as whether there will be minimum grade-point average requirements or income restrictions.
But Wills said a few details are already falling into place: the minimum age to buy a lottery ticket will likely be 18, and lawmakers are expected to ban video lottery terminals.
"There's no support for (video lottery) anywhere," he said. "So rather than leave that up to interpretation, let's go ahead and make sure that that's very clear, that we're not going to have that."
Wills, who has filed a shell bill to create the lottery and the scholarship program, said he's working closely with House members and Senate leaders to craft details on how the program should work.
"We're not putting things out there in the public domain at this time because we're not at the point where we have an agreement, a consensus," he said. "The process is working fine. The House and Senate we talk every day about this. I think everybody recognizes the potential, particularly the benefit that can be provided by this."
Another major issue Wills anticipates dealing with during the session is how Arkansas can pay for a trauma system. Lawmakers in 2007 approved the creation of a trauma network, but couldn't agree on the funding the House favored increasing some court fees, while the Senate supported adding a fee to auto insurance premiums.
Wills said he expects lawmakers will consider increasing the tax on cigarettes to pay for the center. He said he's heard of proposed increases ranging from 25 cents per pack to $2 per pack. Arkansas' cigarette tax is now 59 cents per pack.
"We're not at the point where I can even predict what the reception will be," he said. "There's a downside, a major downside to doing nothing, in terms of lost lives, in terms of costs of health care and rehabilitation for folks."
Increasing or reducing a tax requires a three-fourths majority in both chambers. Wills takes over a House with a slightly smaller Democratic majority than in 2007 this year's House has 71 Democrats, 28 Republicans and 1 member of the Green Party, while the 2007 House had 75 Democrats and 25 Republicans.
Wills said he's still undecided on one major issue backed by Gov. Mike Beebe whether to reduce the state's sales tax as it applies to food by 1 cent. Lawmakers in 2007 voted to cut the grocery tax from 6 cents to 3 cents, and the governor is proposing to cut it again to 2 cents.
"There's a sentiment in the House at least that things are different now than they were two years ago," Wills said, mentioning the $1 billion surplus the 2007 General Assembly had to work with then. "I know the last thing that (Beebe) would want would be for us to cut taxes this year and have to raise them down the line.
"We're going to work with the governor, we're going to work with the Senate, and we're going to make a good decision. What that decision ends up being is one of the big questions of the session."
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