Southwest Arkansas Daily
State Capitol Week in Review
From Senator Larry Teague
May 19, 2017
LITTLE ROCK –The state Board of Education will consider raising the cap on the number of students who can enroll in the Arkansas Virtual Academy.
The academy has received preliminary approval for a higher cap from the Charter Authorizing Panel and the next step is for the request to go before the state Board. If the Board of Education approves, the online school’s enrollment cap would increase from 2,000 to 3,000 students.
There are two state-approved online schools in Arkansas - the Virtual Academy and the Arkansas Connections Academy, whose enrollment cap also is 3,000 students.
Charter schools are financed by state tax revenue. They operate under a contract with the state that waives some of the regulations and policies that govern traditional public schools. Besides the two online schools, Arkansas also has approved 24 “open enrollment” charter schools run by non-profit organizations. Open enrollment charters can also be operated by institutions of higher education.
Arkansas also has 28 “district conversion” charter schools, which are run by school districts. There are 238 public school districts in Arkansas that operate 1,064 schools from kindergarten through grade 12. Of those, 547 are elementary schools, 219 are middle schools or junior high schools and 298 are high schools.
They employ 32,818 certified teachers and their total enrollment this school year is 477,268 students. About 63 percent of Arkansas public school students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches because their families’ yearly income is below certain poverty thresholds.
The next meeting of the state Board of Education will be June 8 and 9.
Scrap Metal Sales
In 2009 the legislature approved Act 390 to strengthen enforcement of laws against the theft of scrap metal. Copper and other metals had become valuable enough that there was a spike in thefts of pipes and cables from outdoor air conditioning units, as well as from electrical power stations and cable TV and telephone lines. Act 390 makes it a Class D felony to destroy gas, electric and cable lines, air conditioning units and farm equipment in order to steal metal.
Dealers who buy scrap metal are required to record indentifying characteristics of their clients, including copies of their ID cards or drivers’ licenses, the license plates of their vehicles and a digital photo and thumb print of the person selling the scrap metal.
The Review Subcommittee of the Legislative Council, without debate, reviewed two contracts with private firms to enhance the computer capacity of the Arkansas Crime Information Center. ACIC maintains the computer system for keeping up with sales of scrap metal, as mandated in Act 390 of 2009.
ACIC operates computers that law enforcement agencies can access to search for criminal histories and crime statistics.
Human Development Centers
The subcommittee also reviewed a series of contracts that Human Development Centers around the state have signed with providers of services like physical and occupational therapy.
Arkansas operates five centers that care for people with developmental disabilities. The center in Arkadelphia has space for 134 people, the one in Booneville for 145 people, the one in Conway for 484 people, the one in Jonesboro for 120 people and the one in Warren for 104 people.
May 12, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – Acts 78 and 79 of 2017 created the Arkansas Tax Reform and Relief Legislative Task Force. The leaders of the Senate and House have appointed the panel’s membership.
There will be eight senators and eight representatives on the task force, which is charged with recommending changes to the state tax code for lawmakers to consider during the 2019 regular session.
Acts 78 and 79 are identical versions of a tax relief measure. One version originated in the Senate and the other one in the House of Representatives.
According to the acts, the recommended legislation should modernize and simplify the Arkansas tax code, while making it fairer for all individuals and businesses that pay taxes in Arkansas. Also, the changes should make Arkansas more competitive economically with other states and should provide incentives for job creation.
By December 1, 2017, the task force shall issue a preliminary report. Its final written report is to be released by September 1, 2018.
Acts 78 and 79 also reduce individual income taxes for more than 1.3 million low-income residents. When they take full effect they will save Arkansas families more than $50 million a year. The largest tax cut a single taxpayer will receive is $156 and for a married couple the saving will be $312 each year.
All individuals earning less than $21,000 will see lower income taxes. Those making less than $4,300, an estimated 120,000 Arkansas residents, will be taken off the rolls completely.
The tax cuts in Acts 78 and 79 will take effect in 2019.
Other tax cuts enacted this year include Act 141, which will completely exempt military retirement from state income taxes and will save about 29,000 retired Arkansas veterans more than $13.4 million a year.
Act 465 exempts sales taxes for manufacturers when they purchase equipment for repairs and replacement of parts. It sunsets an existing tax incentive program known as InvestArk.
The tax exemption will be phased in. In Fiscal Year 2020 the savings to Arkansas manufacturers will be only $230,000, but they will then begin to increase sharply. By 2023 the savings for Arkansas manufacturers will be more than $12.3 million a year.
The legislature lowered income taxes in 2015 by more than $100 million a year with the passage of Act 22. It reduces individual income taxes for middle class families whose annual income is between $21,000 and $75,000.
Act 1173 of 2015 lowers the state income tax on capital gains, and now saves Arkansas taxpayers almost $12 million a year.
AG Seeks More Tools to Prosecute Medicaid Abuse and Neglect
The Arkansas attorney general is one of 38 nationwide who have officially asked federal authorities for greater powers to investigate and prosecute Medicaid abuse and neglect.
The criminal cases usually involve health care workers taking money to which they are not entitled, by swindling it from an elderly Medicaid recipient. The financial fraud is often accompanied by physical abuse and neglect of the elderly person’s need for nutrition and hygiene.
The attorneys general want to repeal outdated limitations on their authority to fight Medicaid fraud, not only in institutions but also in the homes of Medicaid recipients. The Arkansas attorney general opened 112 criminal cases of Medicaid fraud last year.
May 5, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – The legislature completed a three-day special session after approving the governor’s proposal to limit eligibility in the Arkansas Works health coverage program.
Senate Bill 3 would reduce income limits for eligibility in Arkansas Works, which now provides health coverage to about 320,000 Arkansas residents whose incomes are beneath 138 percent of the federal poverty level. The governor said that he was confident federal officials would approve the new income threshold in SB 3, which would reduce eligibility to people with incomes less than 100 percent of the poverty level and which would remove about 60,000 Arkansans from Arkansas Works.
Senator Larry Teague of Nashville was among nine senators who voted against the bill. Opponents of SB 3 included the most conservative members of both political parties, and included many representatives of rural areas.
“The bill had provisions I agree with, such as the requirement that a recipient get a job or take job training in order to qualify for benefits,” Teague said. “In that respect it brought Medicaid expansion in line with existing requirements for becoming eligible for food stamps and welfare.”
“Another provision I like promotes more personal responsibility on the part of Medicaid recipients, because it requires them to pay two percent of their premiums, up to $19 a month,” Teague said. “Although the monthly payments are minimal, for most people they’re an incentive to adopt a healthier lifestyle.”
“However, there are a lot of moving parts in the bill, and ultimately the financial threat to rural hospitals was too great to ignore because of the 60,000 people who will be taken off Arkansas Works,” Teague said. “They may eventually qualify for a different type of health insurance through the federal exchange, but in our experience we can be fairly certain that a large percentage of them will not have any health insurance for an extended period of time.”
“Their lack of health insurance doesn’t change the fact that hospitals have a legal and moral obligation to treat sick people who show up at their door. We know what happens because we lived through it for decades. When people without money or insurance rely on hospital emergency rooms as their primary care provider, hospitals have to write off millions of dollars in unreimbursed care. For small hospitals in rural areas that can begin a financial death spiral. It certainly has happened that way in the past, before we implemented Arkansas Works,” Teague said.
“Apart from the loss of medical care, which can be life-threatening to the elderly and to people with chronic conditions, losing a hospital has negative economic effects throughout the entire community,” Teague said.
“A town that loses its hospital can give up trying to recruit new industry, because there is no corporate executive who will locate a plant there. And if that town has an existing industry, like a poultry processing plant, its management will not expand because of the lack of a hospital and the lack of medical coverage that entails,” Teague said. “Any expansion will take place at one of its plants in other states.”
“I wish that the sponsors of SB 3 had broken the bill down into its separate parts so that I could have voted for the parts I like, but that was their strategic decision to make. In the end, I had to vote against the bill because I truly believe it will harm rural hospitals and rural communities,” Teague said.
Teague is Senate co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee. He represents Senate District 10, which includes Howard, Montgomery, Pike and Polk Counties and parts of Clark, Hempstead, Nevada and Sevier Counties. He has been in the Senate since the 2009 legislative session. Before that he served six years in the House of Representatives.
April 28, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – After officially adjourning the 2017 regular session on May 1, the legislature was scheduled to immediately begin a special session to consider a specific issue, whether or not Arkansas should ask the federal government for a new Medicaid waiver.
If federal officials approved the request for a waiver, Arkansas would have more control over eligibility and spending in the state’s Medicaid program. The governor and public health officials are optimistic that federal approval will be forthcoming.
The legislature actually finished the business of the 2017 regular session on April 3, when it went into recess. During this quiet period, staff and administrators have been closely reading the bills that were passed.
In the event a serious typographical error is discovered it could be corrected before the official adjournment date of May first. Also, if legislators chose they could override gubernatorial vetoes on May 1. The governor vetoed four bills this year and it appears that the legislature will not attempt any overrides.
Since January 9, when the session began, the legislature considered a total of 2,069 bills and approved 1,127 of them. About 300 were appropriation bills that authorize spending for state agencies and distributed state aid to schools, colleges, universities, cities and counties.
The special session must be called by the governor, not by legislators. In his call listing the items to be considered during the special session, the governor determines and limits the issues that can be addressed during the special session. In a regular session, legislators have the power to introduce however many bills they wish, concerning whatever topics they choose.
Legislative leaders expressed hope that the special session would be smooth and that it would last only three days. The state Constitution mandates that a minimum of three days is necessary for passage of a bill.
This provision allows people sufficient time to consider it and voice their opinions to lawmakers.
Minimum Teacher Salaries
Act 246, which increases minimum teacher salaries, was passed by both chambers of the legislature without a dissenting vote. The act raises the minimum starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree from $30,122 to $31,400. The minimum salary generally increases by $450 for each additional year of experience the teacher has.
Teachers with a master’s degree will have a starting minimum salary of $36,050. For each year of experience the teacher has, the minimum salary goes up by $500.
Educators recognized April as the month of the Military Child, to promote awareness of the challenges facing children whose parents are in the armed forces.
After the legislature approved Act 146 of 2013, Arkansas joined the Military Interstate Children’s Compact Commission to formally put in place numerous procedures to help military children adjust to their local schools after moving from other parts of the country, often during the middle of the school year.
Joining the interstate compact means that Arkansas schools are aligned with those in other states on policies governing academic records and immunization schedules, placement at grade level and the age when children begin kindergarten.
April 21, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – The legislature approved a very conservative budget for state agencies next fiscal year.
One of the few agencies that will get a significant increase in spending authority is the Division of Children and Family Services, which is within the Human Services Department. It administers child welfare programs, such as foster care and adoption services.
At the recommendation of the governor, the legislature approved an increase in the Division’s funding of $27 million a year. That will bring its total funding to about $118 million a year in state general revenue funds.
With the increased money, the Division will be able to hire more case workers and lower the average caseload of employees who investigate allegations of abuse and neglect and who process those cases until children are in a safe place.
Division officials hope to add about 200 staff when Fiscal Year 2018 begins on July 1 of this year. About 150 would be family services workers who work directly with children and their families, and the others would be support staff.
In other good news for the Division, the most recent quarterly report indicates that the number of Arkansas children in foster care has gone down. The drop, from 5,178 in September to 5,129 in December, represents the first decrease in the previous two years.
Adding case workers will lower the average caseload for each, which in Arkansas is now 28 cases per family services worker. The nationally-recommended standard is 15.
A result of high case loads is that the number of children in state custody tends to go up, because individual case workers spend more time on paperwork and transporting children.
That means it takes longer to get children out of the system and back with their families, or in adoptive families.
In a related development, the legislature also approved Act 714 to create a permanent funding source for child advocacy centers throughout the state. The act enhances financial penalties for a list of criminal offenses and traffic violations. The revenue will be allocated to child advocacy centers.
Preventing Human Trafficking
At a bill signing ceremony last week the national head of an organization called Truckers Against Trafficking told a frightening story, which fortunately had a happy ending. It was about how a truck driver in Virginia called the police when he observed suspicious behavior at a truck stop. His phone call saved a young woman who had been kidnapped for prostitution.
The goal of Act 922 is to repeat that outcome. It requires truck drivers to take a course on how to recognize and respond to potential human trafficking. The course will be part of their requirements to get or renew a commercial driver’s license.
Organizations representing truck drivers support the act. They note that on the average stretch of highway, at any time of day, there are more truck drivers than there are police officers.
The sponsors of Act 922 and groups that work against human trafficking hope that the Arkansas law becomes model legislation that is widely copied by other states.
April 14, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – During the 2017 regular session, lawmakers considered numerous changes to existing law governing placement of neglected children.
About a dozen were enacted.
Many of the new acts set out clear legal procedures followed by attorneys for the state Children and Family Services Division, attorneys for parents both custodial and non-custodial, attorneys for other relatives of the children and attorneys for the children.
For example, Act 1111 clarifies that when a court order has been filed that terminates a person’s parental rights, the division no longer has to try to reunify that parent with the child. That person’s lawyer is relieved of the duty of representing the person, and the person is no longer to be notified of hearings and court proceedings.
The act prevents the results from past drug tests from being used to deny a parent visitation with a child. However, if the person is under the influence of drugs or alcohol during a visit, or appears to be impaired, that visit may be canceled.
Act 1116 directs child welfare officials to try to locate a non-custodial parent and grandparents when the state takes custody of a child in neglect.
Act 701 instructs juvenile courts that a non-custodial parent shall be presumed a fit parent, and other parties in the case would have to present evidence otherwise.
Act 861 creates the Commission for Parental Counsel. In neglect and abuse hearings, the commission would provide attorneys to represent parents who don’t have money to hire their own. Judges would appoint the attorneys from a list provided by the commission.
Act 994 sets up a legal procedure for people whose parental rights have been terminated, allowing them to petition the court to have those rights reinstated.
Act 994 recognizes that too many displaced children in Arkansas are never reunited with their biological parents, and also never get to live in a permanent foster home or adoptive home.
Its purpose is to add an option for permanently placing children over 14 who have been in the foster care system for many years, especially if the process of adopting them has been disrupted and halted.
Act 700 expands the legal definition of “fictive kin.” The term describes people who are not related by blood or marriage to the child in the neglect case, but who have strong and positive emotional ties to the child. Examples in the previous law included godparents, neighbors and family friends.
Act 713 creates a new legislative body to oversee child maltreatment investigations by the Division of Children and Family Services and the Crimes Against Children Division of the State Police. The oversight committee may only review completed cases, and not pending cases.
The committee’s meetings will be closed to the public and there will be penalties for members who unlawfully reveal its activities.
Act 996 revises the criteria a judge follows when permanently placing a juvenile with a parent, a custodian or a guardian. The judge may consider whether the adults maintained consistent contact with child welfare officials and how much they were involved in the writing of a case plan.
April 7, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – On the last full day of the 2017 legislative session, the Senate narrowly defeated a bill that would have required that a majority interest in medical marijuana facilities be owned by people who have been Arkansas residents for the past seven years.
The legislature voted on numerous bills to implement the constitutional amendment approved by voters last November, which legalized the sale and cultivation of medical marijuana.
Voter approval of the amendment required the legislature to create, from scratch, a new agency with regulatory authority. A guiding principle was making sure that medical marijuana be treated strictly as a medicinal product, and to not allow it to become a gateway for recreational use.
HB 1371, to limit ownership of growing facilities and dispensaries, failed twice in the Senate, receiving 18 votes on one attempt and 17 votes on a second attempt. It needed at least 24 votes in favor. The bill would have amended the medical marijuana constitutional amendment approved by Arkansas voters last year, and thus required a two-thirds majority for passage. Two thirds of the 35-member Senate is 24.
Generally, the arguments against the bill were that it would unfairly restrict free trade.
Many other bills implementing the medical marijuana amendment were approved. For example, Act 641 will limit the licensing of dispensaries and growing facilities to “natural persons,” rather than corporations. The Senate passed it 33-to-1.
It also allows a growing or retail license to be transferred to another individual, subject to the approval of the newly-created Medical Marijuana Commission.
At least 17 bills have been enacted that implement the medical marijuana amendment, and more are on their way to the governor’s desk. Some were very common sense proposals that generated little if any controversy, such as a law to require growers to undergo a criminal background check.
One bill passed late in the session that is on its way to the governor is HB 2190, which requires dispensaries to hire a pharmacy consultant, who must be a licensed pharmacist. The pharmacist will develop educational materials for people who buy marijuana, including material on the risks and benefits of using medical marijuana.
The pharmacist will develop guidelines for recognizing substance abuse in customers, and guidelines for refusing to sell to people who show signs of being impaired or of abuse of medical marijuana.
HB 2190 requires dispensaries to make available vaporizers, for consumers who do not want to smoke medical marijuana. It also prohibits them from selling pipes, papers and paraphernalia associated with recreational smoking of marijuana.
The Senate passed HB 2190 by a 34-to-0 vote.
House Bill 1580 will impose a 4 percent tax on sales of medical marijuana, with the revenue to pay for inspections and regulation of the new industry. It has passed in both chambers of the legislature and is ready for the governor to sign.
Another law, Act 640, prohibits advertising or artwork that would appeal to children. Medical marijuana cannot be packaged in flavors that appeal to children, such as candy animals. It must be packaged in child-proof containers.
March 31, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – In the final days of the 2017 regular session, legislators
completed work on balanced budgets for state agencies, prison units, public
schools and higher education.
The Arkansas balanced budget law is called the Revenue Stabilization Act and it is necessarily one of the last and most important bills to be considered by lawmakers.
The act allocates more than $5.3 billion in general revenue. The major sources of that revenue are the sales tax and state individual and corporate incomes taxes.
Out of the general revenue fund, more than $2.2 billion will go to public schools. In Arkansas there are more than 477,000 students from kindergarten through grade 12.
About $1.1 billion will go to the Human Services Department for Medicaid, which will be supplemented by federal matching funds at a rate of almost three to one. Last year Medicaid spent $6.5 billion in Arkansas. Senior citizens, people with visual impairments and people who have disabilities account for 74 percent of traditional Medicaid spending in Arkansas.
About $346 million will go to the Correction Department for securely housing more than 17,000 inmates. The Department of Community Correction, whose officers supervise 50,000 inmates out on parole or offenders on probation, will get $83 million next fiscal year.
More than $14 million is allocated for reimbursing county jails when they house inmates who should be in a state prison unit, but who have to remain incarcerated at the county level because of a lack of available bed space in a state unit.
The number of state inmates in county jails will fluctuate daily, but in the recent past has exceeded 2,000 at times. The state pays $30 per day per inmate in reimbursement.
Higher education will receive $733 million in state funding, to supplement the revenue they receive from tuition, fees, donations and endowments. More than 167,000 students are enrolled in state-supported colleges and universities.
Among the final pieces of legislation approved this session was Senate Bill 658 to strengthen legal protections of borrowers.
The bill defines as interest the amount of money that the borrower must pay back that exceeds the amount provided by the lender to the borrower. In this way, it includes as interest the fees and charges that payday lenders have used to skirt interest rate limits.
Amendment 89 to the Arkansas Constitution limits interest rates on loans and contracts to 17 percent. Supporters of SB 658 noted that payday lenders often charge fees that translate to an annual interest rate of 280 percent. That practice should end when SB 658 takes effect, 90 days after the legislature adjourns.
Also, the legislature passed and sent to the governor House Bill 1621 to change the date of school elections from September to the general election in November or the primary election in the spring. Legislation to permanently move the primary elections from May to March is still pending and has not gained final passage this session.
Both chambers approved HB 2057, which gives the Highway Commission authority to raise speed limits on controlled access highways, such as four-lane interstates, from 70 to 75 miles per hour.
The Senate approved HB 1580 to levy a four percent tax on sales of medical marijuana. Revenue from the tax will pay for inspections and regulations of medical marijuana growing facilities and retail dispensaries.
March 24, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – As the General Assembly approaches the final days of this year’s regular session, lawmakers approved bills affecting public and private education, criminal justice, prisons, election procedures, campaign finance and unemployment benefits.
Senate Bill 647 is a 60-page measure that sets up new accountability and assessment tools used in public schools. Educators will be affected by how it changes the methods for designating schools that are in academic distress. The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 23-to-4. It went to the House Education Committee.
The Senate passed SB 746, by a vote of 22-to-5, to set up education savings accounts into which individuals and corporations can donate money and receive tax credits.
Parents can apply for financial help from the accounts to offset the cost of tuition and other expenses of sending their children to private schools. It also was referred to the House Education Committee.
The Senate voted unanimously in favor of HB 1014 to allow teachers to claim up to $250 a year in income tax deductions for expenses they incur buying school supplies for their students from their own pocket. It went to the governor.
Both chambers passed and the governor signed Act 539 to eliminate the death penalty and life without parole for people who commit capital offenses before they turn 18. Those inmates would be eligible to appear at a parole hearing after 25 or 30 years in prison, depending on their original sentence.
The Senate passed a criminal justice measure, SB 177 to require inmates to serve at least 80 percent of their sentence if they have been in prison at least three times previously.
Some lawmakers voiced concerns over the potential $20 million a year in additional costs the bill would create for state prisons.
After it passed the Senate on a 20-to-9 vote, it was referred to the House Judiciary Committee.
The legislature approved and sent to the governor HB 1047 to require voters to present identification with a photo in order to cast a ballot. A registered voter without photo ID can sign a sworn statement that they’re registered voters and their provisional ballots will be counted. A false statement would be considered perjury.
Political action committees, exploratory committees and independent expenditure groups must file their finance reports electronically under HB 1010, which has been approved by both chambers and sent to the governor. It is similar to Act 318, approved earlier in the session, which requires candidates to file electronically.
The House approved HB 1707 to permanently move the date of primary elections to March. It was referred to the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. The primary was temporarily moved from May to March in 2016 so that Arkansas would have a more influential voice in the presidential races.
The legislature has passed and sent to the governor HB 1405 to shorten from 20 to 16 weeks the length of time someone may receive unemployment insurance benefits.
It also lowers the wage base from $12,000 to $10,000, which will lower unemployment insurance taxes for Arkansas businesses by an estimated $50 million a year.
March 17, 2017
The legislature has passed and sent to the governor a “campus carry” measure that was amended numerous times and applies to many more areas than college campuses.
As originally introduced, House Bill 1249 would have allowed faculty and staff at state colleges and universities to carry a concealed firearm on campus, as long as they already had a concealed carry permit.
That was the version that the House passed by a vote of 71-to-22. It was sent to the Senate, where seven amendments to the bill were considered and five amendments were adopted. After amending it, the Senate passed it on a vote of 18-to-9.
The final version of the bill allows anyone with a permit to carry a concealed firearm on campus, as long as they take an additional eight hours of training. Permit holders who take the additional training will not have to renew it in future years, and the cost will be nominal.
With the added training, they will also be able to carry on certain government property and many other locations where they could not carry under previous law, such as churches and restaurants with liquor permits.
However, churches and establishments may still prohibit entry to people carrying concealed firearms if they post a written notice at the entrance that is clearly readable from within 10 feet.
The bill will probably allow Arkansas concealed carry permit holders to legally carry in other states, because reciprocal agreements require additional training.
The House formally agreed with the five Senate amendments to HB 1249, and sent the bill to the governor for his signature.
In a related vote, the Senate approved legislation to allow people with concealed carry permits to store a handgun in their motor vehicle on the parking lot of their place of employment. The gun must be stored out of sight in a locked handgun storage container. The right to keep a gun in a motor vehicle does not extend to people who are not employees.
The Senate passed the measure, Senate Bill 37, by a vote of 24-to-7 and sent it to the House, where it was referred to the Judiciary Committee.
HB 1222 to create education savings accounts was amended five times before the Education Committee sent it to the full House. It would allow individuals and corporations to earn tax credits when they make donations into the accounts.
Parents would be able to apply for financial aid from the accounts to help with tuition and other costs associated with sending their children to private schools and non-public schools. The financial benefits from an education savings account would not be considered taxable income for the parents.
One of the amendments to HB 1222 reduced its impact on state revenue. Until fiscal year 2021 the total amount of tax credits may not exceed $3 million each year. In part due to concerns expressed by public school officials, the bill failed by a vote of 37-to-47.
Two House bills have been filed to enact a $200 million a year highway program. HB 1726, to set up a bond issue for highway projects, failed on a 38-to-35 vote.
It needed 51 to pass. HB 1727 would finance the bonds by applying the state sales tax to wholesale purchases of gasoline. The Transportation Committee advanced it to the House.
March 10, 2017
The General Assembly gave final approval to legislation that will give law enforcement authorities effective new tools to deal with people going through mental health crises.
Act 423 of 2017 will establish three regional Mental Health Crisis Stabilization Centers, each with 16 beds. When people need mental health treatment and are causing trouble, the police can take them to a center rather than to jail, where they will not get any treatment at all.
Act 423 also sets up courses to train police officers to recognize and respond to people going through a mental health crisis and whose behavior could be harmful to others and to themselves. The training includes how to deal with people under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
Under Act 423 the Arkansas Crime Information Center, which keeps criminal records, will include in those records people’s history of mental health screenings when they are admitted to jail or a mental health crisis center.
The Legislative Criminal Justice Task Force worked on the bill for two years, which also changes how parole violators are treated.
In other news the governor announced his plan to hold down Medicaid costs. There are four main provisions in the plan, and the state must get approval from federal officials to put them in place.
One is a work requirement. Another encourages workers to sign up for employee-sponsored health insurance, rather than for Medicaid. A third provision would allow state officials, rather than federal officials, to determine eligibility. Finally, eligibility would be for people earning 100 percent of the poverty level, rather than the current 138 percent.
Initial estimates are that lowering the income threshold would remove about 60,000 people from the list who qualify for Medicaid expansion, which now has about 311,000 people enrolled. Although they would no longer qualify for Medicaid they could buy health insurance under the federal Affordable Care Act, under which they could get tax credits to help them pay the premiums.
The Senate gave final approval to a proposed constitutional amendment that would require voters to present a photo ID in order to cast a ballot. If passed by voters it would authorize the legislature to determine the acceptable forms of ID.
The measure will be on the general election ballot in November of 2018, as will a second proposed amendment referred to the ballot earlier this session that would limit attorneys’ fees and punitive damages in civil lawsuits.
The Senate passed an amended version HB 1249, which has been labeled the “campus carry” bill. Originally it would have allowed faculty and staff with concealed carry permits to carry a firearm on college campuses. After seven amendments, it is a much different bill. It would allow anyone over 21 with a concealed carry permit to carry on campus, but only after they complete eight hours of additional training.
The State Police may waive up to four hours of training for people who got their permit within the past 10 years.
For permit holders who take the additional training, the new bill expands the number of places they can carry. However, they still will not be able to carry a firearm into prisons, courtrooms or school facilities for kindergarten through grade 12. The new version of the bill would expand the number of states that recognize our concealed carry laws, and which will allow Arkansas permit holders to carry in those states under reciprocal agreements.
March 3, 2017
Soldiers and airmen of the Arkansas National Guard who are students at state-supported colleges and universities will have their tuition paid for, under legislation passed by the Senate.
Senate Bill 278 has several purposes. First is to improve the Guard’s readiness, both for domestic emergencies and foreign missions. Arkansas has lost units to other states that provide more benefits, which means that fewer units are available in Arkansas to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies.
The loss of Guard units has a negative impact on local economies. In 2016 an estimated $37.2 million was lost in the Arkansas economy due to the loss of Guard units.
After its passage by the Senate on a vote of 34-to-0, SB 278 was sent to the House Education Committee.
The Senate passed SB 136, a 55-page bill addressing criminal justice, prisons and sentencing laws. It authorizes the construction throughout the state of mental health crisis stabilization units with 16 beds each.
The governor’s proposed budget calls for opening three units. Criminal justice experts say there is a need for as many as eight. Police officers will get some training in how to recognize mental health issues and how to deal with people experiencing a mental health crisis. They will be taken to one of the stabilization centers instead of to jail, where treatment for mental health problems is lacking.
It passed 27-to-4 and was sent to the House Judiciary Committee, which gave it a favorable recommendation. The next step is a vote in the entire House.
Both chambers passed HB 1426, which creates a new tuition grant program that will allow students to receive two years of tuition if they study in high-demand fields, such as computer science, technology or welding. They must perform community service and commit to working in Arkansas for at least three years after receiving their degree. The grants will be available in the fall of this year.
The governor signed Act 281, a Senate bill that makes Arkansas the first state to designate the grounds of its Capitol as a site for a monument honoring Gold Star families. Since World War I gold stars have traditionally designated the loss of an immediate family member during wartime.
The monument shall be designed and constructed in the manner recommended by the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation. Williams, who attended the bill signing, is the sole living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. His foundation works to place Gold Star monuments all across the county.
Both chambers have passed HB 1427 to require political candidates to file campaign finance reports electronically, and to require the Secretary of State to maintain those records on a web site with a search function.
Candidates who do not have access to the technology necessary could submit paper records throughout the election cycle. The effective date of the bill is October 1, 2017.
The Senate passed SB 362 to phase out a tax credit program for manufacturers called InvestArk. The bill gradually repeals the sales tax they pay on replacement and repair parts. By the time it has been fully implemented in 2022, it will save Arkansas manufacturers about $12.6 million a year
February 24, 2017
A Senate committee has advanced legislation that requires voters to present a photo ID before they can cast a ballot.
Under House Bill 1047, numerous types of identification are acceptable. They include drivers’ licenses, military and student IDs, public assistance card, concealed carry permits and passports. People who have no valid form of photo ID can get one for free, after making a sworn statement that they do not have any other acceptable form of ID.
A person who lives in a long-term care facility or nursing home can use a document signed by the nursing home administrator.
If voters arrive at their polling place without a photo ID, they can cast a provisional ballot and sign a sworn statement that will be sent to the County Board of Election Commissioners for verification.
Or they can visit the office of the County Board of Election Commissioners before the following Monday and show a valid photo ID, then their provisional ballot will be counted.
HB 1047 was given a do pass recommendation by the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.
The House approved a similar measure, except it is in the form of a proposed constitutional amendment that will be referred to voters in the general election in November, 2018. That measure is HJR 1016 and it passed the entire House on a 73-to-21 vote.
The Senate amended HB 1249 to allow people to carry a concealed firearm on a college campus if they have a permit. Originally the bill applied only to faculty and staff, then it was amended to require them to take an additional 16 hours of active shooter training.
It was amended again to allow anyone over 25 to carry a concealed firearm on campus, if they have a permit and take additional training. In order for the bill to become law, both the Senate and the House must pass an identical version of the bill.
Minimum teacher salaries will go up next year by $400 under, thanks to Act 246. The minimum starting salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree would be $31,400 a year and for a new teacher with a master’s degree the minimum starting salary would be $36,050.
In school year 2018-2019 the minimums will be $31,800 and $36,450.
Both chambers passed SB 31 to expand the opportunities for college students to qualify for lottery scholarships as traditional students, rather than as non-traditional students. The difference is important because the pot of money for traditional scholarships is larger.
If a high school student fails to score a 19 on the ACT right out of high school they are not eligible for a lottery scholarship as a freshman. However, if they get good grades in their freshman year, maintaining a 2.5 GPA while completing 27 hours, they can qualify as a traditional student your sophomore year.
Both chambers passed SB 123 to make permanent a pilot program that required welfare recipients to be tested for illegal drugs. The bill not only makes the program permanent but also makes it statewide, rather than effective in only a few counties.
Also, both chambers passed HB 1426 to restructure various scholarship programs and create a new one called the Arkansas Future Grant Program. It provides two years of tuition and fees to students who take courses in engineering, science, math, technology or a high-demand field.
February 17, 2017
After a lengthy and impassioned debate, the Senate voted to refer to voters a proposed constitutional amendment that would limit attorneys’ fees in civil lawsuits and limit the amount of punitive damages that can be awarded.
The measure is Senate Joint Resolution 8. The Senate vote is a virtual guarantee that it will be one of the proposed constitutional amendments that the legislature will refer to voters this session. In each regular session the legislature may refer up to three, although it has sometimes referred fewer than three.
This year the Senate and the House each will select a proposed amendment, and SJR 8 will be the Senate’s choice. Both bodies will have to agree on a third proposal.
The proposed amendments will be on the general election ballot in November of 2018.
SJR 8 would limit contingency fees charged by attorneys in civil lawsuits to a third of the net recovery.
Punitive and non-economic damages would be limited to $250,000, or to three times the amount of compensatory damages awarded. The resolution defines non-economic damages as those that cannot be defined in money, including pain and suffering, mental and emotional stress, loss of life or companionship, visible result of injury and physical impairment.
The Senate also amended HB 1249, which would allow staff at state-supported colleges and universities to carry a concealed firearm if they have a permit. The amendment requires them to take an additional 16 hours of training.
Even if they are licensed to carry a firearm and have taken the required 16 hours of additional training, the amendment would not allow them to take a gun into a meeting at which their job performance, grievances or disciplinary matters were being discussed.
Also, they still could not take the weapon into a child care facility on the campus, nor could they carry their firearm into a dormitory.
Adding the amendment means that HB 1249 must be reconsidered by the House before it becomes law. The House Judiciary Committee would vote on the amended version of the bill, and if the committee advanced it the entire House would vote on the amended bill.
In other news the governor signed SB 125 to allow maternity leave of up to four weeks with pay for state employees. It is now Act 182.
The act will not cost the state money because the leave will come from time donated by fellow workers into a catastrophic leave bank. Employees may use their maternity leave within the first 12 weeks after the birth or adoption of their baby. They will not have to exhaust their annual leave or sick leave in order to qualify for maternity leave.
The Senate approved SB 123 to make permanent a pilot program that requires welfare recipients to take drug tests. In the pilot program, 3,040 recipients were asked if they used drugs, and based on their answers 17 of them were red-flagged. Of those, 11 refused to take a drug test and lost their benefits for six months.
Another two tested positive and because they refused to go into drug counseling they also lost their benefits for six months. SB 123 was sent to the House, where it was referred to the Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
February 10, 2017
The Senate passed two bills to streamline state agencies and make them more
efficient. Other bills are in the pipeline.
Senate Bill 256 transfers the relatively small Arkansas Energy Office to the larger Department of Environmental Quality. The legislature created the Energy Office in 1981, a period when the country was recovering from oil shortages and long lines at gas stations. Its mission is to help people make their homes and offices more energy efficient, and helps agencies and schools get grants to pay for new equipment.
Senate Bill 257 transfers the Office of Health Information Technology to the Health Department. Since 2009 the smaller agency has helped medical professionals store and transmit health records electronically. The goal is for physicians, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies and all other providers to have access to a patient’s records as quickly and easily as possible.
In other news, the governor signed Act 148 to fundamentally change how colleges and universities get state aid. Instead of basing their funding on enrollment, Act 148 will apply a formula based on the number of students who graduate or earn a certificate that helps them get a job.
A provision in Act 148 limits the amount an institution’s funding can decrease to no more than two percent from one fiscal year to the next.
The governor signed Act 141, which will exempt all military retirement benefits from state income taxes starting in tax year 2018. Under current law only the first $6,000 in military retirement is exempt.
The act will benefit about 29,000 Arkansas veterans who served in the military long enough to earn retirement benefits. Each year, the act will reduce their state income taxes by an average of $462 each.
Act 131 extends the length of time that military members have to renew their drivers’ licenses after their discharge. Under current law their license stays valid for 30 days after their discharge, if they are serving out of the state and the license expires while they’re still serving. Act 131 extends to 60 days the period during which their driver’s license remains valid.
In each of its regular sessions the legislature may refer to voters up to three proposed constitutional amendments. The deadline for submitting proposed amendments has passed and 35 possible amendments were filed by lawmakers. The narrowing of that list to three will be the focus of the Senate and House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees.
The measures we place on the ballot will be decided by voters in a statewide election in the general election of November, 2018.
A major bill that is still being worked on is Senate Bill 136, a 46-page bill to modernize parole policies and criminal sentencing. It sets up additional training for police and correction officers in how to handle offenders going through mental health crises. It sets up a monitoring program so that law enforcement can keep track of the number of inmates with mental health problems.
SB 136, which is in the Senate Judiciary Committee, reiterates sentencing guidelines and requires a judge to provide a written reason for departing from those guidelines.
The bill sets limits on how long parole violators can be kept in prison, if the violation was technical or non-violent.
February 3, 2017
After putting the finishing touches on a $50 million-a-year tax cut for low
income families, lawmakers turned their focus to legislation that exempts
military retirement benefits from the state income tax.
About 657,000 Arkansas taxpayers will benefit from Act 78 of 2017, which reduces or eliminates individual state income taxes for people whose incomes are less than $21,000 a year.
About 29,000 Arkansas veterans, who served long enough to qualify for military retirement benefits, will benefit from Senate Bill 120 and House Bill 1162, which is identical. It exempts all their retirement pay from the state income tax.
State tax officials estimate that on average, each of them will save $462 a year in lower income taxes.
Now that the legislature has approved the main tax cut bills under consideration this year, the state’s revenue forecast is fairly clear. From this point on, spending bills will take up much of the legislature’s attention.
Up first on the Senates’ agenda is HB 1209, a bill to fundamentally change how state aid is distributed to colleges and universities. Now, higher education receives about $753 million from the state. That money goes to 22 two-year colleges and ten four-year universities.
The formula for distributing state aid is based in large part on enrollment, and as a result some campuses have adopted admission policies that have driven up the number of students dramatically.
HB 1209 would change the formula and instead would base funding on outcomes.
That means the percentage of students who graduate, with a degree or a certificate that better prepares them to get a job.
The governor included HB 1209 in his legislative package, and has pledged an additional $10 million in aid to higher education if the new funding formula is approved.
HB 1209 has been passed by the House. Although some House members expressed concern about its financial impact on particular campuses, the bill passed by a vote of 80-to-10.
The major concern expressed in the Senate Education Committee was that the state does not support higher education adequately. The committee gave it a favorable recommendation; consideration by the full Senate is the next step before it is sent to the governor.
By a vote of 74-to-21, the House passed and sent to the Senate HB 1047 to require voters to present a photo ID at polling stations before they can cast a ballot.
The acceptable forms of identification include a driver’s license, a concealed carry permit, a student or a military ID, a passport, an employee badge and a public assistance ID.
People who have no other valid type of identification card could get one for free from the Secretary of State. To get a free photo ID from the Secretary of State they must swear an oath that they do not have any of the other valid forms of ID.
The legislature has passed similar legislation in the past, but the Supreme Court ruled it unconstitutional. For that reason, some legislators want to refer to a statewide election a proposed constitutional amendment that would require a photo ID in order to be allowed to vote.
The House passed HB 1249 to allow faculty on college campuses to carry a concealed firearm if they have a permit. Currently, they’re prohibited from doing so because each college campus has adopted a policy against it.
Those policies would be over overridden by HB 1249. It passed by a vote of 71-to-22 and will be considered next by the Senate Judiciary Committee.
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