Southwest Arkansas Daily
State Capitol Week in Review
From Senator Larry Teague
April 20, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – The state has seen a drop in the number of people enrolled in
Arkansas Works, the Arkansas version of an expanded Medicaid program.
During the month of March, enrollment in Arkansas Works fell by 3,637 people, from about 284,000 to about 281,000.
The decline comes even before the state imposes stricter eligibility requirements that call for some Medicaid recipients either to work or to look for a job in order to continue receiving benefits.
Medicaid is administered by the state Human Services Department, which released a monthly report for March detailing expenditures and enrollment.
The report breaks down Medicaid into two statistical categories – traditional Medicaid and Arkansas Works. Medicaid provides health coverage for people with disabilities, the elderly who are in long-term care facilities, and low-income families.
The number of people who are eligible for traditional Medicaid fluctuates, and has hovered around 700,000 for the past few years. The March report indicates that 235,436 adults and 418,278 children are enrolled in traditional Medicaid.
Arkansas Works, previously known as the private option, is the version that Arkansas implemented after Congress enacted federal health care changes in 2010. The affordable care act took effect after several years and numerous court battles.
After the federal government enacted an expanded version of Medicaid, implementation at the state level has been the most controversial issue facing Arkansas legislators. Every legislative session, controversy centers around its cost.
Renewing Arkansas Works requires a 75 percent majority of the legislature, and the legislature reaches that supermajority every year by a close vote.
The state’s Medicaid population, in both categories, is now 963,758. The entire state population is a little more than 3 million people.
The work and job training requirements for Arkansas Works will go into effect in June for recipients aged 30 to 49. They must participate in work activities to keep their benefits, but there will be exemptions for pregnant women, people with disabilities, caregivers, people in drug treatment and people in full-time job training or vocational school.
People enrolled in Arkansas Works are scheduled to receive a notice in April advising them of the new requirements.
Kentucky and Indiana also have approved work requirements.
School Safety Commission
At a meeting of the newly-created Arkansas School Safety Commission, a spokesman for school administrators said that financial support from the state would be necessary in order to hire armed security officers and put in place safety measures.
Security improvements include video cameras, door locks, fences and radio equipment.
In addition to firearms training, some staff should be trained in mental health counseling and behavior analysis. Schools would need additional funding if their licensed staff who are permitted to carry firearms are screened for illegal drug use, and if they take psychological examinations.
Each school district has its own distinct needs in order to upgrade security. For example, in some areas, the availability of police officers and deputies is limited.
April 13, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – The state Department of Education has released its annual report on school performance, giving each of the 1,040 schools in Arkansas a letter grade from A to F.
The grades are based on numerous factors, such as students’ scores on standardized tests and their academic improvement over time. Graduation rates and school quality are also factored into the letter grades.
Schools that got failing grades will not be penalized, according to the state Education Commissioner.
The report has again sparked debate on how accurately the letter grades measure school performance. They also raised questions about how much importance to place on standardized test scores when evaluating schools, teachers and administrators.
In districts where prominent schools received a D or an F, school patrons and superintendents advised parents to study the reports carefully, and to not hastily plan on transferring their children to another school solely because of the letter grades.
Representatives of the Office of Education Policy at the University of Arkansas, writing in the statewide newspaper, publicly questioned the weight given to standardized test scores in assigning letter grades to a school, as opposed to the weight given students’ improvement over an extended period of time.
They recommended that parents search for the “student growth” score section of their children’s school, in order to get a more complete picture of the school’s performance.
The University of Arkansas education policy team reiterated a well-researched conclusion -- children from impoverished homes will not score as well on standardized tests as children from financially secure homes. Disadvantaged children who start at a relatively low academic level can improve significantly in a good school.
A measure of that improvement is found in the school’s “student growth” on the report card issued by the Education Department.
To access the department’s report, do an Internet search for “myschoolinfo.arkansas.gov” The first link to appear should be ADE My School Info – Search. Click on it and you’ll be on the department’s web site that has the report. There are numerous ways to click on the public school you’re interested in.
The report covers last school year, 2016-2017. The most common grade was a C, for all levels.
Of the elementary schools, about 37 percent received a C. Of the middle schools, 32 percent received a C and of the high schools, 40.5 percent got a C.
Of the 535 elementary schools in Arkansas, 22 were graded F. Of the 204 middle schools, two received an F. Of the 301 high schools, nine got an F.
On the positive side, 83 elementaries, 46 middle schools and 34 high schools got an A.
The most-talked about letter grades were those assigned for the performance of the student body of a school as a whole. The report also shows breaks down performance reports for various groups, to show how each compares with national education standards.
Those groups are African-American students, Hispanic and Latino students, white students, students who don’t speak English as a native language, special education students and students from low-income families.
April 6, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – The manufacturers of prescription painkillers are facing a barrage of lawsuits from state and local governments across the United States.
The Arkansas lawsuits allege that the pharmaceutical companies used deceptive trade practices to downplay the potentially lethal effects of painkillers. As a result, greater numbers of people are addicted to painkillers, known as opioids, and greater numbers are dying from overdoses.
In 2016, there were 401 fatal drug overdoses in Arkansas. That is four times the number of Arkansans who died from drug overdoses in 1999.
According to the lawsuit filed by the state attorney general last week, 236 million doses of opioids were prescribed in Arkansas in 2016. That equals about 78 pills for every resident in Arkansas. In a few rural counties the number of pills sold per capita was much higher, for example, in five counties the average was 150 pills sold per person.
The dramatic rise in abuse of painkillers is ruining families and straining the resources of law enforcement agencies and treatment programs. It is the cause of increased visits to hospital emergency rooms, and painkillers are showing up more frequently in newborn babies. There are effective antidotes that if applied in time can save the life of a person who is overdosing, but they are expensive.
The attorney general’s lawsuit alleges that the pharmaceutical companies committed Medicaid fraud, claiming that Medicaid would not have paid reimbursements for the prescription painkillers if the companies had been truthful about the drugs’ effectiveness in managing pain over the long term.
Traditionally, the painkillers were prescribed for acute pain for short periods. In recent years, according to the lawsuits, the drug companies have marketed the painkillers for chronic, long-term pain management, which results in addiction and other serious side effects.
This has increased the market for painkillers dramatically, and opioids are now the most commonly prescribed drug in the United States, according to the lawsuit.
A coalition of Arkansas cities and counties also has filed a lawsuit against pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and sell opioids. On its own, Pulaski County has filed a similar lawsuit.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say that nationally 42,000 people died from opioid overdoses in 2016.
In 2011 the legislature created the state’s Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, and has updated it several times since. Last year lawmakers approved Act 820, which requires physicians to consult with the program before prescribing opioids and addictive drugs.
Causing particular alarm is the growing presence of fentanyl, because it is so dangerous and has caused so many fatal overdoses. Abuse of fentanyl caused 20,000 deaths nationwide in 2016, and because of its lethal nature there is now an ongoing debate about the extent to which lawmakers should increase penalties for its distribution. Some elected officials and advocacy groups support the death penalty for large-scale dealers of fentanyl.
Nationwide, hundreds of lawsuits have been filed against the drug manufacturers. The defendants include some of the most well known and widely traded companies on the stock market.
March 30, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – Thanks to fewer work-related injuries being reported over the past two years, the cost to business of workers’ compensation insurance in Arkansas is set to go down by about 15 percent, beginning in July.
The drop in premiums was announced after the state Insurance Department adopted recommendations by the National Council on Compensation Insurance. The council recommended reductions of 14.9 percent for the state’s assigned risk pool and 15.4 percent for the voluntary market.
Companies may see their rates differ from the industry averages, after the individual risk factors for each business are calculated.
In announcing the rate reduction, the governor pointed out that Arkansas already had the lowest rates in the country for workers’ compensation insurance. Reducing premiums will further cut the costs of doing business in the state, therefore Arkansas will be even more attractive to executives looking to locate or expand here.
Even better news than the financial savings is the fact that workplaces in Arkansas are safer than ever. Last year the fewest number of accidents were reported than during the previous 20 years. The number of fatal accidents has declined dramatically. In 2017 there were 49 fatal accidents at Arkansas workplaces, compared to 106 fatalities reported in 1995.
This marks the eighth consecutive year that workers’ comp rates have gone down. In announcing last year’s rate decrease, the state Insurance Commissioner attributed the steady downward trend to Act 796 of 1993.
The legislature established in detail what qualifies as a compensable injury.
The 1993 act takes into account that some injuries are worsened by activities done outside the workplace, and it lists activities that preclude resulting injuries from being compensable. For example, it excludes compensation for workplace injuries resulting from horseplay and fighting.
Even before passage of Act 796, injuries caused by drunkenness or drug abuse were generally not compensable. However, the 1993 law reversed the presumptions that guided the legal process.
Before Act 796 it was presumed that workplace injuries did not result from intoxication. Since Act 796 took effect, the presence of drugs or alcohol in an injured worker creates the presumption that the accident was caused by the use of drugs or alcohol. Every employee gives implied consent to drug testing, and refusing a drug test after an accident creates the presumption that drug use caused the accident.
Act 796 greatly expanded the legal definitions of injury, which had been simply a few lines in the law books and which now includes injuries caused by rapid, repetitive motion. The major changes due to Act 796 are listed in an article in Issue 2, Volume 20 of the Law Review of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
Automobile Insurance Rates
In January, the Insurance Commissioner credited his department’s crackdown on fraud as a reason that Arkansas consumers enjoy some of the country’s lowest car insurance rates. Arkansas is sixteenth from the bottom in the cost of motor vehicle insurance.
The average driver in Arkansas paid $736 in 2015, compared to a national average of $889. Premiums for car insurance in Arkansas were lower than in every neighboring state.
March 23, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – Ruling that the Medical Marijuana Commission violated the Arkansas Constitution and its own rules, a circuit judge has declared null and void the Commission’s decisions to award five applicants with licenses to cultivate marijuana.
The judge ruled in an appeal filed by an unsuccessful applicant. Although the judge failed to agree with the plaintiff on a couple of issues, his ruling was clear and to the point on the major matters in dispute.
The judge ruled that two Commissioners had an appearance of bias because they had monetary relationships with applicants who were to receive licenses.
The Constitution and the Commission’s own rules state that a cultivation facility shall not be located within 3,000 feet of a church, school or day care. The judge found that the Commission had failed to verify whether any of the winning applicants met that requirement. In fact, the Commission did not verify the distance requirement for any of the 95 applicants.
The Commission is supposed to consider the financial background of people applying for a license to cultivate medical marijuana.
Two of the applicants are partly owned by people who have been officers in defunct corporations, or corporations whose charters have been revoked, because of past due franchise taxes owed to the state.
However, the Commission did not evaluate applications with an eye to the applicants’ experience in managing a business that has not had its license revoked, the judge wrote. He called that a “blatant irregularity in the Commission’s evaluation process.”
The judge cited a well-established axiom in legal cases, that “an agency is bound by its own regulations.” In this case the Commission failed to follow its own rules.
The Commissioners scored applicants. An attorney and a physician on the Commission gave higher scores to entities with which they had a business relationship.
The attorney’s law firm represented the applicants in several corporate filings, a dispute over land use and business matters. The physician referred patients to a specialist who applied for a license to cultivate medical marijuana. The applicants were on the verge of being granted licenses, but the judge issued a restraining order.
Every applicant is entitled to a fair selection process, the judge wrote. The monetary relationships of two applicants with the attorney and physician on the Commission are shown by “proof that is not nebulous, hypothetical or fancily,” the judge wrote.
That proof is “certainly enough to create a reasonable suspicion of unfairness,” the judge ruled. Therefore, the licensing decisions in which the attorney and the physician participated “cannot stand,” he ruled.
The defendants said that the applicants’ names and other information that would identify them were kept hidden from commissioners.
The judge ruled that the Medical Marijuana Commission and the agency in which it operates, the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division, “proceeded in a manner that defies due process and the rule of law, rather than in a manner that respects it.”
Arkansas voters approved an amendment to the state Constitution in the general election of November, 2016. The amendment created the Commission within the Alcoholic Beverage Control Division and authorized to accept applications for medical marijuana growers and retailers.
March 16, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – The legislature completed its special session after addressing all of the issues on its agenda.
The bill that garnered the most attention will require pharmacy benefit managers (PBM) to be licensed by the state Insurance Department.
Pharmacy benefit managers negotiate contracts between health insurance companies and local pharmacies. Since the beginning of the year, local pharmacists have been hit hard by reduced reimbursements from the managers.
Neighborhood pharmacists testified at legislative hearings that in some cases they were not even getting paid enough to cover the cost of filling prescriptions.
Legislators were concerned by reports that pharmacy benefit managers reimbursed independent pharmacists at a lower rate than they reimbursed drugstores with which they had a corporate affiliation. That practice is not allowed, under Act 900 of 2015, and enforcement of the prohibition will be strengthened by passage of the legislation requiring pharmacy benefit managers to be licensed.
Opponents of the legislation pointed out that pharmacy benefits managers are hired to control inflation of the price of prescription drugs. By negotiating volume discounts for health insurance companies, they help to hold down the cost of premiums.
Opponents also said the bill amounted to interference by the government into business transactions carried out between private sector companies. A spokesman for pharmacy benefits managers told the Senate Insurance and Commerce Committee that the costs of pharmaceuticals accounts for 22 percent of the cost of insurance premiums.
The Senate passed the measure by a 30-to-2 vote. Veteran senators predicted that due to the complexity and financial importance of the bill, it is likely that the legislature will have to tweak it during the 2019 regular session.
Consumers will benefit from the new law because it prohibits pharmacy benefits managers from writing gag rules into their contracts with pharmacists. That means pharmacists will be able to advise customers on how to purchase alternative prescriptions that are equally effective but not as expensive.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, six states already prohibit gag clauses in contracts between pharmacies and PBMs, and Arkansas was one of 20 states considering a prohibition of them. When the new Arkansas law regulating PBMs takes effect in September, we will become the first state in the country to regulate them.
Also during the special session, the legislature enacted a law clarifying the legal procedure for contract disputes in which the parties have waived the right to a jury trial. Questions rose last year after a state Supreme Court ruling.
The legislature tightened up the language in current environmental regulations to relieve the concerns of farmers, especially those with large hog and cattle operations. The bill limits the ability of third parties to delay the granting of permits by the Department of Environmental Quality.
Also, a new law will expand tax breaks for families that have set up 529 college savings accounts. Those deductions had been available to parents who drew from the accounts to pay tuition at college, and now they will be allowed for tuition payments for children attending private or religious schools in kindergarten through twelfth grade.
March 9, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – When the legislature passed a balanced budget law for next year, it signaled the successful completion of the 2018 fiscal session.
A few minor details were left to be finished, and official adjournment was scheduled for March 12. The governor planned to call a special session the following day, for lawmakers to work on a problem faced by local pharmacies whose reimbursements have dropped sharply since the beginning of the year.
The most dramatic moments of the fiscal session occurred when the Senate took up an appropriation bill for the Division of Economic and Medical Services. It administers Medicaid and the expansion of Medicaid known as Arkansas Works, which has generated controversy and heated debate in every legislative session since 2013.
Passage of an appropriation bill requires a supermajority of 75 percent, which means it needs 27 votes in the 35-member Senate. The funding bill for Medicaid passed without a vote to spare on a vote of 27-to-2. In the House of Representatives the vote was 79-to-15.
The federal government provides the bulk of funding for Medicaid, therefore any changes in eligibility and in services covered must be approved by federal officials. At the beginning of the week the administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services said that the federal government will allow Arkansas to impose a work requirement for some recipients who are younger than 49 and are able-bodied.
If they do not work 80 hours a month they must volunteer, take job training or continuing adult education to be eligible.
The Division has asked federal officials for permission to begin a cost-saving measure, and is still waiting for a decision. It would permit Arkansas to drop about 60,000 people from the Medicaid expansion rolls, which currently have about 285,000 signed up.
The balanced budget proposed by the governor forecasts growth in state general revenue of about $237 million, bringing the total to about $5.6 billion for the fiscal year that begins June 30. That would be an increase of 4.3 percent. The forecasts for the current fiscal year are for growth of 2 percent.
The bulk of next year’s revenue growth will go to Medicaid – about $138 million. State colleges and universities will receive an additional $12 million, to bring their total state aid to $746 million.
Prisons will get an additional $3.5 million, bringing their total state aid to $353 million. The Public School Fund will increase to $2.2 billion.
In the fall, legislators will begin budget hearings in preparation for the 2019 regular session. Sessions in odd-numbered years are much busier than fiscal sessions in even-numbered years.
In regular sessions in odd-numbered years, lawmakers not only adopt budgets but also consider hundreds of bills affecting criminal and civil law, education standards, environmental quality, tax fairness and the affordability of health care.
During this year’s fiscal session, the legislature voted on 124 Senate bills and 139 House bills. During last year’s regular session we considered 1,280 House bills and 789 Senate bills. The fiscal session lasted 29 days and last year’s regular session lasted 86 days.
March 3, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – As the legislature gets close to wrapping up the 2018 fiscal session, one of the final bills to be considered is the state balanced budget bill known as the Revenue Stabilization Act.
Whether in fiscal sessions or regular sessions, the balanced budget law is traditionally among the last measures passed by the General Assembly.
The appropriation for the Medicaid program is also one of the last bills approved by the legislature. It is one of the largest expenditures of state tax dollars, and usually is one of the most controversial spending bills in every recent legislative session.
The Revenue Stabilization Act was first passed by the legislature in 1945 by a unanimous vote in the House of Representatives and a 30-to-1 vote in the Senate.
It has proven to be a flexible method of balancing state government’s budget. A legal challenge of the Revenue Stabilization Act was filed in 1961 and the following year the state Supreme Court upheld its constitutionality. The ruling was unanimous.
The justice who wrote the majority opinion said that the “Revenue Stabilization Law is a complex accounting tool designed to insure that the recipients of State funds receive monies only so long as cash is on hand.”
It still functions well today. Legislators prioritize all state agency spending requests. If the economy is healthy and general revenue is collected at projected levels, state agencies receive what they are budgeted to receive.
When the economy goes into a downturn, income taxes decline because fewer people have jobs. Sales taxes decline because families cut back on spending. Corporate income taxes are reduced because profits suffer. The total amount of state general revenue falls below estimates, and as required by the Revenue Stabilization Act, state agencies must cut back on spending in the low-priority categories.
State aid for public schools is considered a top priority, after a legal challenge in the Lake View school funding case. The plaintiff was a small, rural school that challenged how the Public School Fund was distributed. In ruling for the Lake View District, the Supreme Court said that the state Constitution obligated the state to provide an adequate education for all Arkansas children. The practical result has been that school funding is considered immune from budget cuts.
School funding amounts to about half of state general revenue spending, therefore about half of state spending is protected from budget cuts. That means the rest of state government is hit even harder when the Revenue Stabilization Act mandates spending reductions.
The Joint Performance Review Committee will meet regularly between now and next January to prepare a comprehensive package of measures to improve school safety, in the event of an active shooter. The measures will be presented to the legislature during the 2019 regular session.
In related news, the governor announced that he would create a commission to evaluate school designs, security policies, emergency plans, school counseling and mental health issues. The School Safety Commission’s initial report is due on July 1, 2018.
February 23, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – The World Trade Center Arkansas has compiled the first listing of companies in Arkansas that export products to foreign markets. It is 110 pages long.
The Trade Center is a partnership of public agencies under the license of the University of Arkansas that was formed in 2007. The members of its board of advisors are business and civic leaders, including six state senators and one former state senator. Its goal is to strengthen the ties between the Arkansas business community and the international business community.
Later this year the center will lead Arkansas delegations on trade missions to the Netherlands, the Caribbean and China. At a conference in Jonesboro earlier this month, trade center representatives spoke on the importance of Canada and Mexico as markets for Arkansas rice.
At the same conference, the governor and trade officials emphasized the importance of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) for Arkansas companies that export their products.
The center partners with the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, which helps companies increase their exports.
In the past five years Arkansas firms exported more than $33 billion worth of products. We rank 35th in the United States in the total value of our export products. In rankings of agricultural products we rank 16th.
Arkansas is first in exports of rice, fourth in broilers, sixth in cotton and tenth in soybeans. It would be fair to say that Arkansas is leading the United States in efforts to normalize trade with Cuba, which is seen as an especially good market for rice and poultry.
The largest category of products sold overseas were aerospace products, followed by rice, grains and oilseeds. Chemicals and poultry were the third and fourth greatest export sectors in the Arkansas economy. Exports support almost 350,000 Arkansas jobs.
After Canada and Mexico, the countries that buy the most Arkansas exports are Japan, France and Singapore. In all, Arkansas companies ship products to 181 countries. About 2,345 Arkansas companies either ship goods or sell services overseas, and almost 80 percent of them are small to medium in size.
The Arkansas Department of Transportation opened bids on 32 projects. The apparent low bids made by contractors added up to about $65 million.
The largest single project, which was bid at $28.9 million, was to widen U.S. Highway 167 for 7.2 miles, from two lanes to four lanes, in Calhoun County.
Under the governor’s proposed balanced budget for next year, which the legislature is considering during the current fiscal session, about $16 million of the projected surplus would go to the Transportation Department.
In order to qualify for about $200 million in matching federal highway funds, the state must come up with about $50 million by the end of summer.
For the five year period from 2016 through 2020, the Transportation Department budget will average about $990 million a year. That comprises $455 million in state generated revenue, which comes from motor fuels taxes and fees on heavy trucks, and $535 million in federal funds.
As recently as 1993, state funds made up 64 percent of the department’s revenue, and in 2016 state funds represented 46 percent of the Transportation Department’s revenue.
February 16, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – Some observers may think that fiscal sessions of the legislature lack drama, because of the lack of controversy. Lawmakers focus on budgets and revenue projections.
But a glimpse at one day’s work in the Arkansas Senate offers a revealing perspective on the numerous services provided by state government.
On the final day of the session’s first week, the Senate approved a long list of appropriations, which authorize spending by state agencies and institutions of higher education for next year.
They included budget bills for the State Police that allow the agency to replace aging equipment and upgrade its computer and radio systems. Another spending bill authorized the Department of Community Correction to renovate facilities and equipment. The department operates minimum security lock-ups, halfway houses and specialty courts such as drug courts. It hires officers who supervise offenders who have been released on probation or parole.
The Senate approved funding for new laboratory equipment for the state Crime Lab, which analyzes forensic evidence and performs autopsies.
One of several funding bills for state prisons was passed. It was for salaries and expenses at the Ouachita Unit in Malvern and the women’s work release center in Pine Bluff.
The list of spending bills included one of the many that will fund the Human Services Department. The bill authorized upgrades and construction at the Booneville Human Development Center, a long-term care facility for about 125 adults with severe and chronic intellectual disabilities.
A couple of bills adopted budgets for organizations that boost Arkansas agriculture, such as the Beef Council and the Catfish Promotion Board.
Another handful of bills were budgets for regulatory and licensing agencies, such as the Boards of Optometry, Physical Therapy, Towing and Recovery, Appraiser Licensing and Home Inspector Registration.
The Senate approved spending measures for several two-year colleges and technical institutes. Also approved was funding for the state Veterans Affairs Department, which operates long term care facilities for aging veterans.
The Arkansas National Guard is within the state Military Department. The Senate approved a capital expenditure for the department’s Civilian Youth Training Program and its Youth Challenge Program.
For the next two or three weeks the Senate will continue to study and vote on similar spending measures. The Arkansas Constitution calls for fiscal sessions to last 30 days, with the possibility of one 15-day extension if necessary. By all appearances, an extension will not be needed.
All the spending bills must be reviewed in detail by the Joint Budget Committee, which generally meets every day the legislature is in session. The committee agreed to draft a measure that would provide $4.5 million to state prisons to use for reimbursements to county jails.
In a speech to a joint session of the House and Senate, the governor proposed cutting the top state income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 6 percent. That would lower taxes by about $180 million a year. However, the governor said that his tax cut proposal would not be introduced until the 2019 regular session.
A legislative task force is working on numerous tax fairness measures, to make Arkansas more competitive. Lowering income taxes is one of the components of its overall package of reforms.
February 9, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – Virtually all of the discussion during the 2018 fiscal session of the legislature will be about the budgets in the categories commonly referred to as the “Big Six.”
Fiscal sessions begin on the second Monday of February in even-numbered years. This year that is February 12.
The “Big Six” categories are institutions of higher education, public schools, the Department of Human Services, the Department of Health, the Department of Correction and the Department of Community Correction.
Their budgets account for about 94 percent of general revenue spending, which is the state’s main discretionary account. Almost all state general revenue comes from sales taxes and income taxes and amounts to more than $5.6 billion a year.
State government spends a lot more each year because it administers numerous programs funded by the federal government. Last year federal matching funds accounted for almost $10 billion in Arkansas.
Also, state government has several special revenue accounts, which come from dedicated taxes. The largest special revenue account comes from motor fuels taxes and fees on large trucks, which pay for highway construction and maintenance. Highway revenue makes up about 67 percent of all the state’s special revenue accounts.
Other special revenues include fees and dedicated taxes that fund specific programs in the Insurance Department, Parks and Tourism, the Department of Environmental Quality and the State Police.
State officials and legislators also take into account cash revenue when they prepare and adopt budgets.
The single largest source of state cash revenue is tuition and fees paid by students at state-supported colleges and universities. Those cash revenues account for more than 95 percent of all cash revenue and amount to more than $5.8 billion.
State parks also collect fees that are considered cash funds, as do regulatory boards and commissions.
When all sources of state revenue were added up last year, including general revenue, federal matching funds, cash revenue and special revenue, they totaled almost $30 billion. The 35 senators and 100 representatives will distribute that money during the 2018 fiscal session, which will probably last 30 days.
Fiscal sessions can be extended by a 75 percent vote of both the Senate and House chambers, but under the constitution it can be extended only once, by no more than 15 days. Therefore, the longest a fiscal session can last is 45 days.
Only appropriation bills may be introduced. They authorize spending by state agencies. There is a mechanism for filing other types of bills, however, it is difficult to do and requires an extraordinary majority in both chambers to even introduce a non-appropriation bill.
Historically, the legislature met just every other year in odd-numbered years. They generally last about 90 days. Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment establishing yearly sessions, with the sessions in even-numbered years devoted solely to fiscal issues. Our first fiscal session was in 2010.
The major topic of controversy during this year’s fiscal session is expected to be a familiar one - renewed funding of the Medicaid program. Passage of the appropriation for Medicaid requires a 75 percent majority in both chambers. That means it needs support from 75 House members and 27 senators.
February 2, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – Sometimes elected officials and law enforcement agencies must conduct public information campaigns to explain how people are affected when a new law is passed.
These days, the opposite is taking place. The Highway Police and legislators are in the rare position of explaining to the public that a new law does not affect them.
In this case, it is farmers and people who haul cattle, horses and other livestock. There have been concerns that they would be affected by new federal regulations geared for commercial truck drivers.
The Highway Police have held meetings with the public and had individual discussions with legislators to assure them that nothing has changed in the enforcement of farm vehicles hauling livestock and rodeo animals.
The new rules require electronic monitors to be installed in commercial trucks, to log the amount of time the driver spends behind the wheel. The purpose is to more strictly enforce rules that limit truck drivers from driving for such long hours that they get drowsy or distracted.
For example, commercial truck drivers are not supposed to drive more than 11 hours in a 14-hour period. An electronic log of their travels will replace paper logs.
The popularity of social media such as Facebook, Instagram and Twitter has fueled the spread of concerns about the potential effect on livestock haulers. The Highway Police and advocates for livestock haulers who studied the details of the new trucking regulations want people to know that the exemptions for hauling horses and cattle are still in place.
For example, if you occasionally load a horse on a trailer to participate in a livestock show or rodeo, nothing has changed, according to the head of the Highway Police.
If you drive fewer than 150 miles, you’re still exempt from requirements that you obtain a commercial driver’s license. If you travel beyond the 150-mile radius, you’re still exempt if you make the trip fewer than eight times within a 30 day period. This exemption applies not only to horse owners on recreational trips, but also to farmers hauling commodities.
In response to concerns from legislators, farmers and cattlemen, Highway Police officials have assured state lawmakers that they have not stepped up enforcement of farm vehicles and livestock trailers.
The new regulations requiring truckers to keep electronic logs of their trips were adopted at the federal level by the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration (FMCSA), and not by legislators at the state Capitol in Little Rock.
If you have any questions call the Highway Police central office at 501-569-2421 and ask for help in determining whether or not you are required to have a commercial driver’s license for the type of vehicle you drive and the type of trips you make.
Concealed Carry Instruction
Last year the legislature passed laws increasing the number of locations where a permit holder could legally carry a concealed firearm, if they take additional training. Certificates were sent to about 70 instructors last week that authorize them to begin the enhanced training.
A couple of instructors who qualified said in interviews with the media that they already had lengthy waiting lists for the enhanced training.
January 26, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – Civic and business leaders want to increase the number of college graduates in Arkansas, to prepare the state’s young people for the best jobs being created in the global economy.
However, members of the Senate Education Committee don’t want policy makers to neglect the thousands of young students who may not attend or finish college. With the idea in mind that not all students are meant to get a university degree, they have sponsored legislation to improve opportunities for high school graduates and to raise the standards for courses that prepare students for careers.
There are various names for the courses, such as vocational and technical education. At a recent meeting of the Education Committee, legislators were briefed on the effectiveness of state efforts to improve career and technical education (CTE) in public schools. Although young students are taught living skills and the basics of choosing a career, the main focus for CTE is in high schools.
Charter schools and public school districts spend about $120 million a year on CTE offerings. The specific amount is hard to pin down because of the nature of CTE classes. Students sometimes take courses at their home campus, but sometimes they take classes in facilities where the costs are shared by several districts, educational cooperatives or local two year colleges.
Facilities known as Secondary Area Career Centers serve multiple districts, and offer technical courses using equipment that is too expensive for a single district, such as automotive lifts. Last year more than 18,600 students took CTE classes in the centers.
The most popular study programs at the career centers were medical professions, welding and automotive service technology. Of the CTE offerings that students took at the home campus of their high school, the most popular were a) family and consumer sciences, b) agricultural power, structural and technical systems and c) digital communications.
One of the challenges of CTE courses is overcoming the stigma that traditionally has been attached to vo-tech education. A study of the class of 2014, conducted by the Fordham Institute, indicates that students who focused on CTE classes graduated at a higher rate than the student body in general.
After graduating from high school they were more likely to get a job, enroll in a two-year college and earn higher wages than students who did not concentrate on CTE.
According to surveys done by the state Department of Workforce Services, the job category in Arkansas that is expected to grow the most for people with only a high school diploma is food preparation and food serving. They include jobs in fast food, restaurant cooks, as waiters and waitresses and food preparation. The second-most in demand occupation will be as retail salespersons.
For people with an associate’s degree from a two year college, the most demand will be for heavy equipment and tractor-trailer drivers. Second in demand will be for nursing assistants.
For people with a bachelor’s degree, the highest demand will be for registered nurses. The second most in demand category will be general and operations managers.
In Arkansas, 22 percent of adults between 25 and 64 have a bachelor’s degree. A high school education is the highest level of education for about half of the population of Arkansas.
January 19, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – In a decision that may have significant financial consequences for the Arkansas Medicaid program, federal officials have approved a Kentucky proposal to require recipients either to work or look for a job in order to qualify for some Medicaid benefits.
States administer Medicaid and share the costs with the federal government. If a state wants to make any changes in eligibility, it must first gain approval from the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Approval comes in the form of a waiver.
Arkansas, like Kentucky and about 10 other states, has sought waivers that would allow them to impose a work requirement for people who qualify for Arkansas Works, a category within the Medicaid program. Once they are fully implemented they would apply to beneficiaries from 19 to 49 years of age.
The requirements will not apply to people who are 50 or older, or people who are in a category known as “medically frail.” Pregnant women and people who are caring for children under the age of six are exempt too.
Although Arkansas officials have not yet received official notice of a waiver, they were optimistic that one would arrive shortly because of the similarities in the Arkansas and the Kentucky requests.
Arkansas also has asked for a waiver allowing us to lower the eligibility threshold for Arkansas works, from 138 percent to 100 percent of the federal poverty level. That would affect about 60,000 of the 285,000 people now receiving benefits from the Arkansas Works program.
There are similar work requirements for food stamps. Exemptions include children, senior citizens and people with disabilities.
Snow Day Changes
Thanks to Act 862 of 2017, the many school districts affected by winter weather last week will not have to make up a snow day later in the spring. Act 862 allows them to provide “alternative methods of instruction” when snow forces the cancellation of classes.
Schools prepare by sending home packets of instruction that students work on at home when it snows. Teachers are expected to monitor online work and answer phone calls and emails. Judging by news reports, it went well for the most part but there will be some bugs to work out. Parents had to help figure out assignments.
One result is that yet another acronym – AMI - has been introduced into the education system. It stands for alternative method of instruction.
Educators hope that using AMI instead of declaring snow days will prevent the need to extend the school year into June, when classes would conflict with summer school and families’ summer plans.
Another recently enacted law, Act 143 of 2015, gives school superintendents more flexibility in managing schedules affected by winter weather. It allows superintendents to delay starting times until as late as 10 a.m. due to inclement weather, and schools will not have to make up that day later in June.
If it begins to snow after classes have already begun, schools can close as early as 1 p.m. without having to schedule a makeup day. Schools can apply Act 143 as many as five times a year.
January 12, 2018
LITTLE ROCK – The governor presented his balanced budget proposal to legislators, who will act on the plan during the fiscal session that begins on February 12.
The bulk of the increased spending next year would be for the Medicaid program, which subsidizes health care for people with disabilities, the elderly who need long term nursing care, and low-income families.
The Division of Children and Family Services, which recruits foster families for children who have been abused or neglected, is set to receive an additional $7.3 million. That will allow it to hire 65 additional caseworkers.
Under the governor’s proposal, state prisons would get an additional $3.5 million, bringing their estimated total from state general revenue to $353. The agency that administers drug courts, parole and probation is due to get an additional $1.7 million, bringing its total to almost $88 million for next year.
Although the governor proposes a balanced budget every year, it is the legislature that has final authority to review and approve all state agency spending requests.
For example, during budget hearings when the governor presented his plan, one senator expressed a desire to increase funding above the governor’s recommendation so that the state can hire more parole and probation officers. The average caseload is 120 for about 468 officers.
The senator said he would introduce an amendment to add 30 new officers.
During the fiscal session legislators will adopt budgets for state Fiscal Year 2019, which begins on July 1. Fiscal sessions last for 30 days, but can be extended to 45 days if a 75 percent majority of each chamber votes to extend. The state Constitution does not allow for an additional extension beyond 45 days.
The Arkansas legislature used to meet every two years, but voters approved a constitutional amendment to authorize yearly sessions, with session in even-numbered- years strictly devoted to appropriations. The first fiscal session was in 2010.
Although the legislature will only consider budget bills during the fiscal session, there is a mechanism for considering non-budget matters. However, it requires the approval of a supermajority of two-thirds in each chamber to be able to introduce a non-budget bill.
Typically during a fiscal session, the legislature will approve about 300 separate appropriations to authorize spending by state agencies and institutions of higher education.
The proposed budget for next fiscal year is based on an estimated increase in spending of almost $173 million, which would bring the total of state general revenue spending to $5.6 billion.
Arkansas also collects special revenues, such as motor fuels taxes for highway construction, and we receive federal matching funds for highway programs, education and health care. This fiscal year the total of all sources of government spending in Arkansas will be an estimated $29.6 billion.
Medicaid relies heavily on federal matching funds. Arkansas, like other relatively poor states, receives a high percentage of matching funds compared to prosperous states. The federal government has matched our Medicaid funding by paying for 70.87 percent of total costs. However, due to recent improvements in our per capita income, the match rate is dropping slightly, to 70.51 percent. The change means that the state will contribute an additional $48.6 million to the total cost of Medicaid in Arkansas.
December 29, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – Many challenges facing state government in 2018 will have a
familiar ring, but will take on a modern twist.
A good example is Medicaid. The state administers the health care program for people with disabilities, the elderly and low-income families, and since it was created in the mid 1960s state watchdogs have been working to improve efficiency and accountability.
The Department of Human Service administers Medicaid, and the department plans to introduce an innovation in 2018 to control costs for home care and personal care, which in Arkansas run about $800 million a year. The department will contract with a software firm to will operate a cloud-based “electronic visit verification” method to reduce fraud. The new system will use technology available on smart phones.
About 15 other states are doing something similar to hold down costs in their home care programs. The idea is to make sure that personal care workers have actually visited the homes of Medicaid patients when they file claims for reimbursement.
Home care and personal care workers are paid to visit Medicaid patients to help with household needs like personal hygiene and preparing meals. After the new verification system is in place, the smart phone of the home care worker will record and transmit a log of its location and the times it was at particular locations. Computers can verify that the phone has actually been at the home of the Medicaid patient, and for how long.
The system will work even if the home is out of cell phone range, because modern phones have clocks and GPS that continue to work even when the device is not in range of a cell tower. After the worker gets back within cell phone range, a record of the visit will be transmitted to monitors.
After difficulties implementing a new computer system, the department has a digital verification system in place that in 2017 removed about 80,000 Medicaid recipients from the rolls. For example, the department now checks a recipient’s income by accessing files at other agencies. It also checks whether an Arkansas recipient is receiving Medicaid benefits from another state.
State officials expect other changes in the Medicaid program in 2018, when they learn from federal agencies whether proposed reforms for Arkansas Works will be approved. Arkansas Works is the expanded Medicaid program that Arkansas implemented after passage of the federal Affordable Care Act.
The state administers Medicaid, but because the federal government provides the vast majority of its funding, changes in eligibility or level of service in Arkansas Works must first be approved by the federal government.
The department has asked for approval of a plan to reduce eligibility from 138 percent of the federal poverty level to 100 percent. Also, the state wants to add a requirement that some recipients work, look for work or take job training in order to qualify for Medicaid.
When the legislature convenes in a fiscal session in February, one of the most important bills to consider will be the appropriation that authorizes Medicaid funding. Passage of the funding measure will require a 75 percent majority in each chamber of the legislature.
December 22, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – The past year has been eventful for state government, and the development that may have the most positive long-term impact for the Arkansas economy was passage by the legislature of a $50 million-a-year tax cut for low income families.
Act 78 of 2017 will lower state income taxes for everyone whose income is less than $21,000 a year. People whose annual incomes are below $4,300 will be taken off the income tax rolls completely.
An analysis by the Bureau of Legislative Research estimates that Act 78 will reduce taxes for 1,346,415 Arkansas residents.
The legislature also eliminated state income taxes for retired veterans. Act 141 of 2017 exempts military retirement from state income taxes. About 29,000 Arkansas veterans served long enough to qualify for retirement benefits, and Act 141 will save them about $13.4 million a year.
Both tax reductions are expected to improve the Arkansas economy in various ways. First, much of the tax savings will be spent on groceries, housing and necessities instead of going into the state treasure. Secondly, state economists expect the tax cut for veterans to make Arkansas an attractive location for military retirees. If locations in Arkansas attract more veterans, those communities will benefit from their expertise and willingness to serve.
Act 465, also passed by the legislature earlier this year, 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, beginning July 1, 2018.
The savings to manufacturers will begin accumulating in 2020, when the loss of InvestArk is more than offset by the sales tax exemption. In Fiscal Year 2020 the savings to manufacturers will be $230,000, but they will increase rapidly and in 2023 will be more than $12.3 million a year.
Because Arkansas had approved a medical marijuana amendment in November of 2016, the legislature had to create from scratch a totally new regulatory system. Lawmakers wanted to make sure that marijuana would be prescribed and sold handled like a medication, and they also wanted to make sure that the amendment would not become a gateway allowing easier access to recreational use of illegal drugs.
In all, the legislature considered 51 bills and enacted 25 that implement aspects of the medical marijuana amendment. There will be 32 dispensaries and five growers that will open for business in 2018.
Act 191 of 2017 was a priority of business leaders because it clarifies the legal position of employers in civil lawsuits. Under the act, supervisors acting on their own are not considered employers. The legal result is that lawsuits against employers will not be pursued under the category of hate crimes. The act creates a one-year limit in which discrimination and retaliation suits can be filed against employers.
Act 734 of 2017 is another priority of business leaders. It lowers the base wage on which employers pay unemployment insurance taxes, from $12,000 to $10,000. The change will save Arkansas businesses about $50 million a year. Act 734 also shortens from 20 to 16 weeks the length of time someone may receive unemployment insurance benefits.
December 15, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – At the December meeting of the Arkansas Tobacco Settlement Commission the governor made a surprise appearance. He wanted to thank commissioners for their help in providing home care and services to about 500 people with developmental disabilities.
They were moved off a waiting list of about 3,000 families who wanted more extensive home care that would allow the person with a disability to move out of an institution. That was made possible because earlier this year the legislature approved Act 50 to allocate about $8.7 million in state funds. That was matched by about $20 million in federal funds.
The state share of the funding came from an account under the authority of the Tobacco Settlement Commission, which is why the governor made it a point to thank commissioners.
The legislature created the Tobacco Settlement Commission and the programs it administers in 2000, after Arkansas and numerous other states settled a lawsuit against major tobacco companies. Arkansas policy makers decided to use all of the state’s share of the settlement to pay for health-related programs, as well as anti-smoking efforts.
The tobacco money paid for health education classes for more than 77,000 Arkansans through local health centers. It also paid for continuing education for more than 11,000 professionals in the health care field.
Almost 25,000 people in low-income areas received health screenings. Revenue from the legal settlement paid for 225 research projects last year at the five institutions designated to receive funding from the 2000 tobacco settlement act. They are Children’s Hospital, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, Arkansas State University, the University of Arkansas and the Division of Agriculture of the University of Arkansas.
Other recipients of settlement revenue are the Fay Boozman College of Public Health, the Arkansas Aging Initiative, the Arkansas Minority Health Initiative and branches of UAMS in Helena, Lake Village and West Memphis.
Arkansas ranks near the bottom in national rankings that measure rates of smoking and obesity, therefore the state is high in the rankings of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer and preventable illnesses.
In measures of overall healthiness, we are at similar levels with Mississippi, Louisiana, Tennessee, Oklahoma, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina, Kentucky and West Virginia.
Given the high cost of health care, the commission has focused on certain projects and programs so that the money it spends will have the greatest impact. “It is unreasonable to expect that a few million dollars of tobacco funding to resolve all problems,” the 2016 report concluded.
Therefore, money is spent where it can leverage federal matching dollars, and in education programs that hopefully “foster a culture of health” in populations that traditionally make poor choices in regards to diet, smoking, drinking and exercise.
According to last year’s financial report, the commission had distributed more than $44.6 million to health programs. The report was prepared by the University of Central Arkansas at Conway. When it was presented earlier this year, members of the commission said that they liked its clearness and readability. Previous reports by a private non-profit organization, and one commissioner commented that its report had been hard to read.
December 8, 2017
Since the legislature enacted a law in 2015 that requires Arkansas high schools
to offer computer science, the number of students in computer classes has
increased by 460 percent.
In the 2014-2015 school year there were 1,104 students in computer science classes and now there are 6,184, according to the state Education Department. The number of teachers qualified in computer science has grown from 27 to 225.
The governor made it a priority to expand computer science offerings and the legislature approved Act 187 of 2015 to require all public high schools and charter schools to offer the courses. The act also created a task force charged with recommending standards for the new courses.
Enrollment in computer science classes grew by 12 percent over last year. Among minority students the participation rate is 39 percent and among females it is 26 percent. The governor and educators said that the gender gap in computer classes should be eliminated and that they would continue working to increase the number of females in computer coding classes.
At the same time that the growth in student enrollment was announced, the governor and state education officials announced that 12 adults would receive scholarships worth $6,000 at the Arkansas Coding Academy at the University of Central Arkansas in Conway.
Four of the scholarships will go to state employees – one from each Congressional district. They can get paid leave while taking coding classes and must agree to continue working for the state for an additional two years.
It is public policy to enhance computer literacy among Arkansas students and the state’s workforce, for several reasons. High-tech industries will be more likely to locate in Arkansas if there is a well trained workforce in place. Our brightest graduates are more likely to live in Arkansas if they can find well-paid jobs here, rather than having to move out of state.
In a related effort, legislators and state officials have been working to provide broadband access to all public schools. Arkansas is one of six states to meet recommended national standards for data transmission. In fact, Arkansas capacity is double the recommended standard. The new network delivers data 40 times faster than the previous one.
New Nursing Program
The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, in conjunction with two local hospitals, announced the beginning of an accelerated nursing program that will begin in the fall of 2018. It is open to students who already have a bachelor’s degree. They can obtain a nursing degree in 15 months. The program will accept 32 students per semester.
There is a nursing shortage nationwide, due in part to the aging of the current generation of nurses. The dean of the UAFS college of health sciences said that the average nurse is 56 years old.
Nursing schools struggle to meet the demand from potential students because of a lack of faculty and constrained budgets, she said. The nursing shortage is not confined to Arkansas, but is a nationwide challenge. The UAFS program will be similar to 270 nursing programs in all other states.
The American Association of Colleges of Nurses reported that last year 64,000 applicants were turned down by nursing programs because of a lack of faculty or slots.
December 1 2017
LITTLE ROCK – Since its creation in 2005, the state’s program to pay for school facilities has paid local school districts more than $930 million and committed to paying $283 million by the end of 2019.
School districts match the state dollars, and since 2005 the combined amount of spending on new school facilities is $2.54 billion.
Several types of projects qualify for facilities funding. A common type is construction that makes sure school buildings are safe, warm and dry. Those projects could be new buildings, or they could be replacements of a school’s heating, air conditioning, fire alarms systems or roofs.
Also qualifying are new facilities made necessary by growth in enrollment. Other projects add space for academics or to convert space into an academic area.
It is called the Academic Facilities Partnership Program and it is for major renovations and new construction projects, not for general repair and maintenance. For example, projects costing more than $150,000 typically qualify for funding. Another measure is that projects qualify if their cost is more than $300 per each pupil
As a consequence of the Lake View school funding lawsuit, the legislature determines adequate funding levels for public schools every year. The lawsuit was filed by a small, rural school district and it challenged the existing school funding formula as inequitable and inadequate. A court ruling in favor of the Lake View district concluded that not every school in Arkansas had equal opportunities to build, renovate or maintain facilities.
The court ruled that under the state Constitution, it is the legislature’s duty to provide substantially equal buildings and equipment for academic instruction, even in schools in relatively poor areas of Arkansas.
In 2003 the legislature created a special committee to study the facilities needs of schools, and in 2005 lawmakers created the funding program.
The agenda of the Senate Committee on Education had an update on facilities funding, which was prepared by legislative staff.
Another result of the Lake View lawsuit has been increased statewide funding for alternative learning environments (ALE) in every school district. Students are sent to an ALE for various reasons, such as pregnancy, disruptive behavior and homelessness if those reasons are a factor in the students’ persistent lack of academic progress.
The state distributes money for ALE to schools in addition to the basic school funding known as foundation aid. This year that amount is $26.4 million, or $4,640 per student in ALE programs. About 5,500 students in Arkansas are placed in ALE classes.
The state Education Department recommends that no more than 2 percent or 3 percent of a district’s students be placed in alternative learning environments. Some students are in ALE programs for only part of the day and spend the remainder of their time in traditional classes.
Schools write a specific learning plan for each student, with academic goals and expectations of improved behavior. Last year, about a fourth of the students returned to their school’s traditional classrooms.
Students in alternative learning environments tend to have lower scores on standardized tests, and to drop out of high school at higher rates than the student body as a whole.
November 17, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – When the governor and the director of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission journeyed to China and Japan on a trade mission, it underscored how important foreign trade is to the Arkansas economy.
For example, more than 20 companies have manufacturing operations in Arkansas that employ about 5,300 people.
Two years ago there were four Chinese companies in Arkansas that hired about 10 workers, but since then our connections with Chinese businesses have changed dramatically. In the past 18 months four other Chinese companies have agreed to open manufacturing plants in Arkansas. Their combined investments in Arkansas will total more than $1.7 billion and they will create about 1,500 jobs.
According to the AEDC, plants owned by foreign companies employed more than 34,500 Arkansans last year. Most of those jobs were in manufacturing, mainly industrial machinery, food and timber products, metals and transportation equipment.
The largest foreign-owned companies with Arkansas locations are from the United Kingdom, Japan, France, Switzerland and Canada.
Exports to foreign markets are important to the Arkansas economy. According to the International Trade Administration, which is a branch of the U.S. Department of Commerce, 2,365 businesses in Arkansas exported goods overseas on 2014. They employed 49,000 people.
Of the Arkansas companies that exported products to foreign countries, 80 percent were small or medium sized businesses.
The Commerce Department reported that last year the countries that bought the most Arkansas products were Canada, France, Mexico, Japan and China. The top Arkansas products sold abroad were transportation equipment, chemicals, processed foods, machinery and paper.
Engines and parts for civilian aircraft were a major component of the transportation equipment exported by Arkansas firms. Rice and poultry products, including eggs, were at the top of the list of food products exported from Arkansas.
About 47 percent of Arkansas exports are to countries which have signed free trade agreements with the United States. The most significant, measured in dollars, is the North American Free Trade Agreement, or NAFTA. Also, Arkansas firms ship products to the Dominican Republic and central American counties under the CAFTA-DR agreement, and to Singapore, Australia and Colombia under separate free trade agreements.
Almost $6 billion worth of Arkansas products were exported overseas in 2015. The AEDC has offices in Shanghai, Tokyo and Berlin with officials who promote Arkansas as a location for foreign companies looking to expand.
Prison Overtime Pay
A legislative committee reviewed a request by the state Correction Department to spend an additional $2 million on overtime pay for security officers.
The money will be transferred from other prison programs. State prison units are working to fill vacancies and retain experienced personnel. Of 4,700 positions 300 are vacant, according to the director of prisons.
State prisons this year have experienced an alarming number of violent incidents in which officers are injured and in which inmates have been injured or killed. The State Police told legislators they have investigated 28 assaults by inmates on guards this year.
November 09, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – In its past two regular sessions the Arkansas legislature has lowered state income tax rates and also made significant reductions in other types of state taxes.
In preparation for the next regular session, in 2019, a panel of legislators is working on further tax reductions. The Senate chairman of the group has said that further reductions of about $100 million a year should be a starting point for income tax reductions.
The Tax Reform and Relief Legislative Task Force has 16 members – eight from the Senate and eight from the House of Representatives. Its duty is to recommend changes in the state tax code that will create jobs and make Arkansas more attractive to businesses. Also, it will recommend reforms that will modernize and simplify the tax code, while making it fairer for all taxpaying entities within the state.
During a series of early November meetings at the Capitol, the task force concentrated on the structure of the Arkansas sales tax and our various excise taxes. In December the task force is scheduled to focus on property taxes and will bring in experts from other states that have recently enacted tax reforms.
Sales taxes are one of the three major sources of revenue for Arkansas state government, along with individual and corporate income taxes. The task force has contracted with a consultant to research our tax structure and compare it with other states.
The research indicates that Arkansas is very near the national average in the percentage of state revenue that is generated by sales taxes. Nationally, the average is 47.5 percent and in Arkansas it is 48.6 percent.
Sales taxes fall within the category of taxes on consumption. One of the main arguments against over reliance on sales taxes is that they can be regressive, meaning that poor people pay a higher proportion of their income on sales taxes than do people in upper-income brackets.
On the positive side, sales taxes are economically efficient because almost everyone pays them. They are not collected on two major generators of economic growth, which are capital investment and people’s savings. They do not create a disincentive that dampens people’s motivations to work and earn more.
The Arkansas sales tax was adopted in 1935 and the current state rate is 6.5 percent. In 1981 the legislature granted cities and counties the authority to hold elections on locally applied sales taxes. Voters in more than 200 of the state’s 500 municipalities, and in 73 of our 75 counties, have approved local option sales taxes.
Arkansas, like most states, has approved exemptions from the sales tax for specific industries or products. Groceries and medications are commonly exempted, either partially or totally.
Arkansas exempts motor fuels from sales taxes, which lowered state revenue by $380 million in 2011. However, motorists and truckers paid even more in taxes when they filled their tanks. In 2011 motor fuels taxes on gas and diesel generated $444 million.
Excise taxes are collected on specific items or activities, such as tobacco, alcohol, tourism and gaming. Nationally, excise taxes generate 16.2 percent of states’ revenues, on average. In Arkansas they generate 13.5 percent of state revenue, or more than $1.3 billion a year.
November 3, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas State Police is working on changes to concealed carry regulations to enforce the intent of Acts 562 and 859, which the legislature approved earlier this year.
Act 562 expands the number of locations where a permit holder can legally carry a concealed firearm, such as public facilities. In order to legally carry in those additional locations, the owner of the firearm must complete additional training to obtain an enhanced license.
Permit holders who maintain the traditional non-enhanced will continue to be prohibited from carrying a concealed firearm in public buildings, schools, colleges, universities, churches, bars and at parades that require a permit.
A person who obtains an enhanced permit can legally carry on public colleges and universities. However, even with an enhanced permit it will be prohibited to carry concealed firearms at collegiate sporting events such as football games. Also, it will be prohibited to carry at the State Hospital or the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. Also, a student with an enhanced concealed carry may not store a firearm in his or her dormitory room.
Several areas will remain prohibited, even for holders of enhanced carry permits. Those locations include prisons, courtrooms and public schools from kindergarten through grade 12. There are allowances for school security guards to carry firearms, and private schools can allow permit holders to carry on school grounds.
Churches and bars can allow or prohibit the carrying of firearms on their premises. They can post a written notice, or verbally notify the permit holder that firearms are not permitted.
At a public hearing conducted by the State Police there were questions from instructors, who train applicants in the use of firearms and teach them on the rules that specify where the carry of concealed firearms remains prohibited.
The State Police will accept written comments until 4 p.m. on November 10. The proposed regulations that will implement Acts 562 and 859 can be found on the State Police web site at the address of its Administrative and Regulatory Division: http://asp.ark.org/publications/
The page has a list of bulleted items and the top item is: “Notice of Proposed Rules Changes – Arkansas Concealed Handgun Licensing.” If you click on it, it opens onto the proposed regulations.
After the State Police compiles the public comments and any changes in the new rules, it will submit them to the legislature’s Administrative rules and Regulations Subcommittee for consideration at its December meeting.
About 225,000 people in Arkansas have a concealed carry permit and there are about 1,000 instructors.
The Senate Education Committee voted to make two revisions to the adequacy report that lawmakers will use in the 2018 fiscal session as the basis for deciding how much state aid to distribute to public schools. They are to add about $2 million for special education catastrophic funding and $3 million for transportation funding.
The adequacy recommendation for Fiscal Year 2019 is to increase the per pupil foundation rate to $6,781, making the total of state aid to schools more than $3 billion.
Under the state Constitution, the state has the duty to provide an adequate education to all children in the state, regardless of the relative prosperity of the district in which they live.
October 27, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – Every year Arkansas Medicaid spends about $2 billion to pay for medical treatment and services for about 150,000 people with developmental or intellectual disabilities, mental illness or substance abuse disorders.
The state Department of Human Services is selecting about 30,000 of the people enrolled in Medicaid for a new program, based on their acute medical needs. The cost of their health care is about $1 billion a year.
Next year they will become members of new organizations owned by health care providers that will coordinate their care.
The goal is to improve their health care while also reducing Medicaid costs that are covered by taxpayers. The state and federal governments share those costs. Generally, Medicaid reimburses health care providers on a fee-for-service basis.
The new system going into place in 2018 will generally pay provider groups a fixed amount per individual. Beginning on January 1, 2019, Medicaid will make a “global payment” to the organizations.
That global payment will cover the cost of care, administration and case management for the 30,000 people who have been selected to join those organizations.
The Human Services Department (DHS) is calculating a “baseline” amount that Medicaid now spends on the care of those 30,000 people. In 2019, the department’s global payments to the provider organizations will be reduced below the baseline amount to guarantee savings for the state and federal government.
It then will be up to the organization to provide the most efficient types of care to its members, and to provide the most appropriate level of services. The organizations will determine how to apportion financial risk among the providers in its network.
As the new Medicaid system gets established, observers of government and political affairs will have to get used to a new acronym – PASSE. That stands for Provider-led Arkansas Shared Savings Entity, which is the name of the organizations that will coordinate care for the 30,000 Medicaid recipients with acute medical needs.
In September the department began making individual assessments of the 30,000 people to determine which PASSE they will be assigned to, and the level of care they will receive. If a person has a strong relationship with a particular provider, that person will be assigned to the PASSE in which the provider works.
Beneficiaries will be able to change from one PASSE to another, once a year, without having to show cause. However, if they are not getting the care they need, they can change PASSE during the year by showing cause.
DHS officials are confident that beneficiaries will continue to receive good care, while the costs will stabilize. According to a department presentation, well-established research shows that the cost of acute care is minimized by improved case management, because it eliminates duplication and unnecessary care.
The current system has no incentive for providers to keep beneficiaries out of the hospital, or out of expensive stays in an in-patient psychiatric facility. The new system will have such incentives.
Medicaid programs in Minnesota, Oregon and Vermont report cost savings from coordinated care resulting from fewer emergency room visits and hospital admissions.
October 20, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – All state-supported colleges and universities have turned in
preliminary enrollment figures to the Higher Education Department. This fall the
11 four-year universities and 22 two-year colleges in Arkansas are experiencing
an overall decline in enrollment of 1.7 percent.
The numbers are tallied on the 11th day of the fall semester, when state-supported campuses had a total of 146,752 students enrolled. A year ago the total was 149,326. In 2012 the total was 157,151.
Two-year colleges experienced the majority of the decrease. Since last year enrollment at colleges has gone down 3.8 percent, to 46,615 students from 48,467 students. In 2012, total enrollment at public two-year colleges was 59,786.
Enrollment at two-year colleges fluctuates according to the general economic conditions in Arkansas. When the economy is in a slump and jobs are scarce, young people tend to enroll in college to gain job skills and improve their career opportunities. Conversely, when the economy picks up and companies are hiring, they leave school and get jobs.
Since 2012, enrollment at four-year universities has increased slowly, although not too steadily. Five years ago there were 97,365 students in four-year universities in Arkansas. Last year the number exceeded 100,000 for the first time and this year it is 100,137. This year’s enrollment is down 0.7 percent from 2016. Enrollment also dropped slightly in 2015 compared to 2014.
There are 13 private colleges and universities in Arkansas, and they also have seen a drop in enrollment. Last year they had a total enrollment of 16,524 and this year it is 16,043.
Two nursing schools supported by hospitals had enrollment increases of 15.2 percent. However, their total enrollment this fall, 734, is still well below what it was in 2012, when 911 nursing students were enrolled.
It is the goal of state policy makers to increase the number of graduates with an academic degree or a technical certificate. Arkansas ranks near the bottom of national rankings that measure the percentage of adults who have a degree.
It’s an economic issue, because better educated people tend to be more productive and financially prosperous. Also, students who graduate in Arkansas are more likely to stay in the state and work or start a business, compared to students who leave the state to pursue a degree.
Enrollment used to be a major factor in the level of state tax dollars an institution received. However, this year the legislature changed the funding formula to give more weight to the number of students who graduate.
Act 148 of 2017 directs the Board of Higher Education Coordinating Board to write two separate formulas, one for two-year colleges and another for four-year universities. The formulas will take into account the different missions of each institution, the number of under-represented students who attend the campus and the number of STEM students that attend.
STEM stands for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville is the largest four-year campus, with 27,558 students. The largest two-year college is Northwest Arkansas Community College, with 7,703 students. It has numerous locations in Benton and Washington Counties.
October 13, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – The number of violent incidents in Arkansas prison units was above normal this past summer, causing the Department of Correction to initiate a three-part strategy to improve safety inside prison walls.
The department will upgrade security equipment in entrance buildings, as well as in recreation areas. Two incidents at the Tucker unit occurred after inmates escaped through the fencing around their recreation cages and went into other areas of the prison unit.
In one incident, a group of inmates overpowered two security officers and took keys and a Taser. They held the officers for three hours.
In the other incident, a guard fired three warning shots in the air to disrupt a fight in which two guards and an inmate were assaulted.
In all four of the state’s maximum security units, the department will tighten security by building controlled access points at the entrances to barracks. Many inmates are housed in open barracks. A few guards in a securely closed room keep the barracks under observation. This past summer, several violent incidents occurred in the open barracks.
The four maximum security units are at Tucker, Cummins, Varner and Brickeys, in Lee County.
The third part of the department’s plan is to convert about 400 cells now connected to open areas, to make them more secure so they can be used for unruly inmates. Department officials have told the legislature that more space for isolation is needed, to protect inmates from being attacked by the unruly prisoners and to preserve overall security inside the prison units.
The governor supports the plan. He requested that prison officials develop improved safety measures in late September, after three guards were hurt in two separate incidents at two different prison units.
A guard was assaulted in the maximum security unit at Tucker, and later on the same day a group of inmates assaulted two guards at the Varner unit. All three guards suffered injuries.
A legislative committee has approved the department’s proposal to increase hazard pay at its most dangerous units, in an attempt to fill their staffing vacancies. The Correction Department director told a legislative committee that about 300 positions are vacant, of a total of about 4,700. Part of the challenge of filling the vacancies is that most prison units are in isolated, rural areas.
The legislature appropriated about $350 million for state prison operations this year. The state has jurisdiction over 18,180 inmates, but not all of them are housed in prison units. On any given day, more than 1,000 are likely to be held in county jails, waiting until space is available in a prison unit. About 300 inmates are assigned to work duties in county jails or local State Police headquarters.
Also this past summer, a 25-year-old inmate in the Tucker unit died after he was assaulted by another inmate. Numerous fights occurred throughout the prison system. The director of prisons told the state Board of Correction Department that the number of fights tends to increase in summer, but the increase was sharper this year.
OCTOBER 6, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – Last year 451 Arkansas teenagers were confined in a secure
facility because they got in trouble with the authorities.
The overwhelming majority, 86 percent, committed non-violent offenses, which includes truancy from school and running away from home.
The youths that were jailed last year in Arkansas ranged from age 11 to age 20, more than half were either 16 or 17 years old, and 86 percent were boys.
The juvenile detention facilities are operated by the state Division of Youth Services, which recently presented its annual report to legislators.
The Division also contracts with 13 non-profit organizations that provide services for troubled youths such as structured care after they get out of school each afternoon. Services include academic tutoring, development of job skills and therapy.
Last year more than 8,000 Arkansas youths were helped by those community service providers. There was little if any publicity about community programs. However, there is rarely a shortage of bad news about juvenile lockups, such as controversies about the use of restraints, placing youths in isolation, staffing shortages and escapes.
The Division presented its annual report to lawmakers at a meeting of the Senate Committee on Children and Youth. The chairman expressed frustration that so many youths were sent to jail for non-violent offenses.
The Division surveyed judges and probation officers to determine the whether they are satisfied with the alternatives to incarceration that are available. One issue is that different areas of the state have different levels of service available.
One of the Division’s goals is to shorten the average length of confinement for youths. The facilities are in Alexander, Colt, Dermott, Harrisburg, Lewisville and Mansfield. They’re run by about 280 staff. The Division plans to contract with private contractors next year to operate the facilities.
The Division’s administrative staff is working to hold down the cost to the state. They’re exploring whether Medicaid will pay for some of the costs. Medicaid is mostly funded by the federal government and pays for health care, and the juvenile lockups provide therapy, mental health treatment and substance abuse treatment. Also, the facilities are enrolling in the National School Lunch Program, the Division staff told legislators.
Youth Services is sharing data with prison officials to track recidivism rates, so as to get a more accurate picture of what programs are working best to keep troubled youths out of the criminal justice system.
Also, the Division is working to improve education in the state’s correctional facilities for juveniles. That requires standardization of curriculum, so that youths maintain their academic grade level when they are released from a lockup and return to their regular school.
Reunification with family is a priority. While the youth is confined, it’s important for family to stay involved with frequent visits and participation in the youths’ recovery. That may mean that parents have to modify their own behavior and confront their own history of substance abuse.
Judges told Youth Services officials that in many cases they believed the parents were the root cause of the child’s delinquency.
September 29, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Correction Department houses 18,180 inmates. If it were a city, it would be the 24th largest in Arkansas, but the system is spread across the state in 19 prison units and several other secure facilities.
About 1,450 will be in the jails of the 75 counties in Arkansas, waiting until space is available in a prison unit. Arkansas has contracted with Texas to house 333 inmates in Bowie County, across the state line from Texarkana.
About 250 inmates are in county jails under the 309 program. It’s named for Act 309 of 1983, which authorizes state inmates to work clerical and maintenance jobs for counties. Another 61 inmates work at State Police headquarters throughout the state.
A large component of the prison population, 3,477 inmates, is assigned to the Agriculture Division of the state Correction Department. That is a modern, bureaucratic name for prison farms.
Like those in several other southern states, the oldest existing prison units in Arkansas began as farms. The state purchased 10,000 acres for the Cummins unit in 1902. Inmates had been housed on a 15-acre site in Little Rock. The first death chamber was built at Cummins and in 1913 the first inmate was executed there. He was a 21-year-old from Prairie County convicted of rape.
In 1916 the state bought 4,400 acres for the Tucker prison farm. In 1933 the prison in Little Rock, known as “The Walls,” was closed and all inmates were transferred to the Cummins unit or the Tucker unit.
For the past 100 years the Correction Department has been accumulating farm property and now has more than 20,000 acres in production. Of those, 14,000 acres are for row crops and 5,200 are pasture for livestock. The prisons have 30 acres of orchard and 650 acres of vegetable garden.
Arkansas prison farms own 2,400 swine and 462 dairy cows. In an average month, 150 hogs are slaughtered for inmate consumption. Milk production averages 500 to 800 gallons a day.
The department hires private contractors for crop dusting and it leases heavy equipment like combines.
A legislative audit determined that yields in 2015 for wheat, soybeans, corn and sorghum were below average yields in the private sector. However, the yield for rice was higher. Correction officials attributed the lower than average production levels to the lack of wells.
On privately-owned farms there is usually a well for irrigating every 80 to 100 acres, the official told legislative auditors. However, at Cummins there is a well for every 190 acres and at Tucker for every 140 acres. The East Arkansas unit near Brickeys, in Lee County, has row crops and it too has a well every 140 acres.
Legislators pay close attention to the Correction Department’s operations because they account for about $350 million a year in state general revenue. The department has about 4,500 employees, with 64 being paid from farm income to work with inmates assigned to prison farms.
The prison farms are a $20 million operation. In 2015, the year of the legislative audit, inmates consumed $8.7 million of food from prison farms. The farms sold $9.5 million in products.
According to auditors, the agriculture division would have generated $1.8 million in income that year above expenses. However, it transferred capital assets to other divisions within the Correction Department.
September 22, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – Several Arkansas universities reported record enrollments this
fall, while the size of the freshmen class at other institutions has gone down
since last year.
Each campus compiles official enrollment figures on its 11th day of the fall semester. Different universities begin their fall semester on different dates, so not every campus submitted its enrollment report to the Department of Higher Education on the same day.
The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville enrolled its largest freshman class, of 5,065 new students. This year is the first time the number of freshmen at the Fayetteville campus has exceeded 5,000.
About 49 percent of the freshmen at Fayetteville are from Arkansas, which matches the rate of last year. The university’s student population has grown remarkably in the past several years, in large part because of an influx of out-of-state students. Total enrollment at Fayetteville is now 27,558. That is a growth of 364 students over last year.
Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia has also been growing in the past few years, and this fall’s enrollment reflected a couple of records. The freshman class of 870 is the largest ever at SAU and total undergraduate enrollment is a record 3,450.
Arkansas State University at Jonesboro, Arkansas Tech at Russellville and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock all reported declines in the size of their freshman class.
ASU enrolled 1,644 new students last year and 1,427 this year. Arkansas Tech enrolled 1,591 freshmen last year and 1,561 this year. UALR enrolled 1,564 last year and 1,325 this year.
The reasons for a decline in enrollment vary, but a major factor is the decision by campuses to raise admission standards and focus on retention of students.
Arkansas must increase the number of college graduates if we intend to be competitive in the global economy, according to elected officials and leaders in business and higher education.
ASU did report a record number of graduate students, 4,336, and a record number of doctoral candidates, 291. Also, a record number of 663 high school students are taking classes for college credit through the university.
Freshman enrollment at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway grew slightly, from 1,880 to 1,937. University officials were pleased that the incoming class was the strongest academically in university history, in terms of test scores and grade point averages. This year’s freshman class at UCA has an average ACT composite score of 24.3 and an average 3.5 grade point average.
The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith saw an increase of 3 percent in the number of new students enrolling this fall. UAFS now has 1,105 first-time students.
Recruiting more international students and expanding the size of online classes are two methods that have potential for increasing enrollment at several Arkansas universities.
Financial stress is a reason that many students fail to complete their higher education. Academic Challenge Scholarships, which are funded by the lottery, are the state’s most popular program. More than 31,000 students have earned the scholarships since the lottery began in 2009.
Lottery sales in August set a record, because of interest in a very large Powerball jackpot. The Arkansas lottery had total revenue of $49.3 million in August. Of that amount, $8.9 million will go for scholarships.
September 15, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas has made progress in placing foster children with relatives, bringing the state’s rate for family placements to the national average.
Nationwide, 29 percent of foster children are placed with family members and in Arkansas the rate is 28.8 percent. Two years ago the rate in Arkansas was 14 percent.
Increasing the number of family placements has been a goal of the Children and Family Services Division. The improvement was commended by the governor and legislators who focus on foster care issues, although everyone involved noted that the state needs to continue making progress.
Last year division officials said that the child welfare system was in crisis. High caseloads were causing unacceptably high turnover rates among family services workers.
New workers needed time to learn the details of individual cases, which slowed the processing of placement and caused more children to remain in the system for longer periods of time.
The number of children under state care grew to more than 5,000 and showed little sign of slowing down. Last year, estimates were that the number of children in foster care would quickly grow to 5,800. However, the reforms put in over the past year have slowed growth and the number of foster children in Arkansas is a little more than 5,000.
The legislature approved the governor’s proposals to add staff, recruit more foster families and streamline the regulatory process. Family services workers have received raises. The division plans to add 228 new employees over the current fiscal biennium.
Average caseloads have gone down, from 28 per worker to 22. A national standard for child welfare caseloads is 15.
The number of cases in which investigations are behind schedule has also dropped, from 721 to 51. Overdue investigations prevent children from leaving the system and getting placed with a family. Moving children from one home to another can be emotionally traumatic, and judges with jurisdiction over placements require certainty that case workers have done all they can to further the children’s best interests.
Another major factor in the state’s improved child welfare system is that religious and faith-based organizations have made it a goal to recruit new foster parents. Since 2016 the number of foster homes has grown from 1,549 to 1,821. Division officials attributed much of that success specifically to The Call and Christians 4 Kids.
In the legislative session earlier this year, lawmakers did more than increase funding for child services. They also approved Act 1116, which requires case workers to conduct an immediate assessment when they take custody of a child, in order to locate a non-custodial parent or a relative.
The list includes parents of half-brothers and half-sisters of the child in state custody. It also includes “fictive kin,” which is defined as a person whom the child identifies as having played a significant and positive role in the child’s upbringing.
The division will work toward more goals, such as finding homes for foster children who are traditionally harder to place, such as teenagers and children with special needs. Also, even though the number of placements is better on a statewide average, there are particular counties that still need a great deal of improvement.
September 8, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – The ACT is the most important standardized test for high school
students in Arkansas, and every year parents and educators anticipate the
releasing of test scores to see how our students are performing.
In the past decade Arkansas students have shown steady improvement because more of them are taking college preparatory courses. However, their average scores have usually been slightly below the national average and on par with neighboring states.
This year marks a dramatic shift in how Arkansas administers the ACT tests and interprets the composite scores. For the first time, every student in the eleventh grade took the test, rather than merely those students who had plans to go to college.
As recently as 2013 a third of high school juniors in the state did not take the ACT, but now Arkansas is one of 17 states nationwide in which all eleventh graders take it.
Earlier this year, 34,451 high school juniors took the ACT. They are now seniors. In 2013 the number of Arkansas juniors who took the test was 25,875.
As a result of dramatically expanding the number of test takers, the average score went down from 20.2 last year to 19.4 this year. The best possible score is 36.
The ACT has four subject areas – English, reading, math and science. Nationwide and in Arkansas, students performed best on the reading section. Our average score was 19.7, down from 20.7 in 2016.
In math Arkansas students’ average score was 19 this year, compared to 19.6 last year. In English it was 18.9 this year and 19.8 last year. In science the average score in Arkansas fell from 20.2 in 2016 to 19.5 in 2017.
In spite of the declines in average test scores, the state’s top education officials were encouraged by the results. First of all, a large number of new students was added to the cohort, which is the official terminology for the group taking the test.
The total number of test takers grew by 35 percent over the past four years, so the slight decline in average scores is not a cause for great concern. Those new test takers are the students who never planned to go to college or pursue academics, and they generally take the ACT only once.
Students planning for college often take the test more than once in order to bring up their score. The average score of students who took the test only once was 16.5, and for students who took it multiple times the average score was 21.1.
The state Department of Career Education offers evening and weekend classes for students who score below a 19 and want to improve their scores on a second attempt at the ACT.
Students who score below 19 must take remedial course work in college. Those classes bring their academics up to college level, and the student does not earn college credits for passing them.
Arkansas students must score a 19 to qualify for Academic Challenge Scholarships, which are funded by the state lottery.
In several neighboring states all high school juniors now take the ACT. In Louisiana the average score was 19.5, in Mississippi it was 18.6, in Missouri it was 20.4 and in Tennessee it was 19.8.
September 1, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – In Arkansas there are about 649 public water associations and 388
waste water systems.
Some of those water systems, especially the smaller ones in rural areas, are facing financial and technical challenges that will get more difficult in the next 10 years.
Legislators and representatives of water systems discussed those challenges at the first meeting of the Water Provider Legislative Task Force, which was created by Act 1056 of 2017. They also heard an update on the state’s water plan from officials of the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission.
One of the costs of running a water system is paying a qualified water operator with the technical expertise required to keep the water clean and the equipment in repair. Task Force members estimated that currently, the average age of operators is from 55 to 65 years old.
When water systems have to replace operators in the next 10 years and thereafter, there will not be enough available people with the technical qualifications required, and many small water systems will not be able to pay the salaries needed to keep them on staff.
Small systems have to comply with the same regulations as larger, urban systems with thousands of customers.
A large proportion of the pipes now in use were originally installed in the 1960s. When they need to be replaced, the cost largely falls on ratepayers, although some grant money is available.
Members of the Task Force asked about the possibility of regionalization as a method of gaining efficiencies of volume.
Combining small systems into larger ones could have political consequences, especially in areas where residents place a priority on local control. If the state has to step in with financial help to subsidize the salaries of technical operators at smaller systems, local control could be diminished. Act 1056 lists some standards that the legislature intends to require of local water providers, such as their obligation to connect and fairly charge for water provided within their charter area.
Water systems in areas that are losing population face the problem of higher costs per customer. At some point they will have to determine how much people are willing to pay on their monthly water bills.
The Task Force will work on those and other issues and report to the legislature in time for the 2019 regular session.
Demand for clean water is going up, and overall Arkansas is not lacking in water resources. The challenge is getting water from where it is abundant to where it is most needed. The current demand for water in Arkansas is 11 billion gallons a day.
A major issue for state water officials is the potential depletion of aquifers, which are the underground reservoirs that municipalities use for drinking water and farmers pump for irrigation. Using more surface water from rivers and streams requires an investment in infrastructure.
General obligation bonds are a source of financing for water systems. The Natural Resources Commission estimated that between now and 2024, water systems will need to replace $5.74 billion in equipment and waste water systems will need to replace $3.76 billion in infrastructure.
August 25, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – The state Correction Department has obtained the drugs needed for lethal injection, preparing the way for the governor to set an execution date for an inmate on death row who was sentenced to death for capital murder in Johnson County in 1992.
Sidney Burnett, a pastor who was 69 years old, was killed in 1991 by Jack Greene, who is now 62. Greene’s attorneys argue that he is mentally ill. The state attorney general said in a letter to the governor that Greene had exhausted his legal appeals and that no court has a stay of execution in place.
Arkansas executed four inmates earlier this year, in April. Eight men were originally scheduled to die by lethal injection, but the lives of four inmates were spared by last minute court rulings. Greene was not among the eight men scheduled for execution in April. A spokesman for the governor’s office said that he would schedule an execution date for Greene.
Adding to the controversy over Arkansas executions was the fact that one of the three drugs used for lethal injection was due to expire. The state scheduled the April executions before the drug’s expiration date. The new supply of midazolam, a sedative used in lethal injections, was obtained on August 4 and will be good until January of 2019.
State law prohibits prison officials from releasing the identity of the pharmaceutical supplier who sold the lethal drugs to the state. News organizations filed Freedom of Information requests and learned that the state paid $250 for the drugs.
One remaining legal issue is a challenge by the pharmaceutical supplier that sold another of the lethal injection drugs to the Arkansas Department of Correction. It is vecuronium bromide. The company contends in court that state officials bought the drug under false pretenses.
The company argues that Correction officials said the drug would be used for medical purposes in prison health units, in order to circumvent the company’s policy against allowing its drugs to be used in executions. A circuit judge ruled in favor of the pharmaceutical company in a preliminary action, but the state Supreme Court overturned the lower court. More litigation is on the way.
The Correction Department’s supply of vecuronium bromide expires on March 1 of 2018 and its supply of the third drug, potassium chloride, expires on August 31 of next year.
According to national news reports, Toyota and Mazda are planning a joint venture to build a $1.6 billion auto manufacturing plant that would employ 4,000 people and produce 300,000 vehicles a year. Arkansas is one of more than a dozen states bidding to be the location of the project.
The corporations as being secretive about their plans, but they did recently announce that they intend to join forces to increase their presence in the United States.
A spokesman for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission told USA Today that the state certainly is interested in pursuing the plant. The publication listed the variety of incentives Arkansas has to offer, including the authority to issue bonds to pay for infrastructure that would lure a superproject. Arkansas can provide job training, sales tax exemptions and tax credits.
August 18, 2017
The state is in the process of contracting with private sector firms to operate
the juvenile detention centers in Arkansas that are now being staffed by state
The centers have space for about 200 young people. Since the beginning of this year they have been run by the state Department of Youth Services (DYS). However, for about 20 years prior to this year the department had contracts with private non-profits to operate them. Those contracts were not renewed and the state took over the administration of the facilities.
During the period in which DYS operated the facilities, its officials assessed the juvenile detention system’s strengths and liabilities. The new contracts that DYS will sign with private firms will reflect the changes that DYS wants to introduce, based on the assessments that have been made this year.
The juvenile detention centers are in Colt (St. Francis County), Dermott (Chicot County), Harrisburg (Poinsett County, Lewisville (Lafayette County) and Mansfield (Sebastian County). Another facility, at Alexander in Saline County, is already being operated under a separate contract with a private firm.
The governor and DYS officials outlined the changes they have made this year, and which they expect to continue after private firms take over the centers in July of 2018. Youths receive treatment for mental health problems and substance abuse more consistently, and it is provided by trained professionals.
Education is better tailored to the individual needs of students, so that they can maintain their academics at grade level or reach their grade level.
In the middle of the past school year, when DYS took over the detention centers, 92 percent of the 193 youths were not at grade level in reading and 86 percent were not at grade level in math. Also, 22 percent needed special education services.
DYS partnered with Virtual Arkansas to provide online courses. The virtual school already offers curriculum for about 50,000 students in 270 Arkansas schools. The partnership will provide consistency in educational offerings throughout the juvenile detention centers, and will make it easier for youths to transition back into their hometown schools when they leave the DYS facilities.
DYS will support Virtual Arkansas by providing education coaches in each classroom, and by providing special education, GED classes and vocational training on site.
The division has hired a consultant with expertise in Medicaid funding, to identify services that are offered in juvenile detention centers that Medicaid will fund. Currently about 84 percent of the division’s budget is paid for by state general revenues. Most Medicaid dollars come from the federal government. If Medicaid paid for some of the costs of operating detention centers, it would free up state general revenue funds for expansion of community programs for troubled youths.
DYS is dedicating $2 million to set up new community programs, in conjunction with local agencies and judges who hear juvenile cases. Many juvenile judges have voiced concerns about their lack of options when sentencing young people, and have said that they prefer to keep the youths at home rather than committing them to a detention center in another county.
August 11, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – Tourism continues to be an important part of the Arkansas economy, and tourism officials continue to adapt their marketing strategies to meet the changes and challenges of promoting the state in national markets.
In the past, Arkansas tourism relied heavily on promoting the availability of outdoor activities such as boating, hunting and fishing.
In order to make Arkansas more appealing to women and families, in recent years the state’s marketing campaigns have expanded and now include opportunities to shop, to enjoy fine dining and to experience cultural and artistic exhibits.
Now the challenge is to reach people through new forms of media, not only younger consumers but people of all ages. Research commissioned by the state Parks and Tourism Department indicates that 65 percent of all Americans use social media.
When the survey was limited to people over the age of 65, it found that 35 percent used social media. In the age group of 18 to 29 years, 90 percent use social media. In all age groups the percentage of Americans who use social media is growing.
Because of the ready availability of so much instant information on the Internet and on smart phones, Arkansas tourism officials now consider American travelers as “hyper-informed.” They also realize that the online landscape is constantly changing.
Last year more than 3.6 million people “visited” the state’s main web page that promotes tourism – Arkansas.com. The challenge for tourism officials is to encourage those online visitors to plan a trip to Arkansas and book a room. Their term for this process is turning “appeal into action.”
State tourism officials also know that they must overcome a perceived barrier of remoteness and expense that many people have. Many people want to travel to a convenient location. The rivers and mountains of Arkansas make beautiful scenery for travel brochures, but their beauty can also make them seem remote and difficult to access. Online tourism promotions use maps and videos, to guide and reassure potential visitors.
In general, Americans are traveling on vacation and therefore the national tourism industry is growing. However, there are areas in the country where the economy relies heavily on the sale of commodities and prices have stagnated. Specifically, state tourism officials mention in their annual report a significant slowing in markets that rely on iron ore, oil, corn and sugar.
Considering the regional variations in economic strength, Arkansas tourism officials try to avoid a “shotgun” approach to marketing and advertising. Instead, they have focused on niche groups, for example mountain bikers, golfers, bird watchers, history buffs and motorcycle clubs.
Arkansas reached out to followers of “mommy bloggers” and promoted the pleasant visits to the state of the Sippy Cup Mom from St. Louis, the Cubicle Chick from Nashville and the Traveling Mom from Austin.
Arkansas tourism is a different industry than it was in 1980, when travel added $1.4 billion to the state’s economy. Now it contributes $7.7 billion. According to the hospitality industry, last October 116,700 Arkansas residents worked in the travel and tourism industry.
Arkansas levies a 2 percent sales tax on tourism-related items. In 2016 collections were up 4.36 percent, to $15.46 million.
August 4, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – Many of the bills passed earlier this year took effect at the beginning of August, 90 days after the legislature officially ended the regular session on May 1.
Of the new laws that affect public education, one of the most important is Act 930 of 2017. It makes broad changes in how the state Education Department holds local school districts accountable, and how the state helps districts when they fail to adequately educate students.
The 60-page law deletes much of the old system, including designations of schools as being in academic distress when certain numbers of students fail to score highly enough on standardized tests.
Act 930 instead designates levels of support that the state will provide to troubled schools. The act allows for more types of evaluating schools than solely test scores.
The state Education Department will continue to set and enforce academic standards. It will consider ideas from local educators and members of the community, as well as concepts promoted by national education groups.
This year’s ninth graders will be the first high school class required to take a personal financial course in order to graduate. Act 480 of 2017 outlines the basics that a finance class should offer, such as how to manage a checking account, how to live within a household budget, the risks and returns of investing and what goes into retirement planning.
Act 1105 of 2017 limits the amounts of fund balances that school districts may accumulate. If at the close of a fiscal year a district’s net balance exceeds 20 percent of that year’s net revenue, the district must take steps to bring the balance below 20 percent within five years. The district can use the excess money for construction, for example.
In order to graduate from high school, students will have to pass the civics portion of the naturalization test taken by people seeking citizenship in the United States. Students must correctly answer 60 percent of the questions. The new graduation requirement is in Act 478.
Act 148 affects institutions of higher education that receive state aid. It changes the funding formula to encourage campuses to graduate more students, or to award them a degree that will help them get well paying jobs. The previous funding formula placed more emphasis on student enrollment.
Act 316 creates the Arkansas Future Grant Program. It helps college students avoid having to borrow money if they seek degrees in high demand fields such as nursing, welding and computer science.
The program will pay their tuition and fees for two years at technical and community colleges. There is a community service requirement of 15 hours a semester, and recipients must agree to talk with a mentor at least once a month.
There is no new cost to taxpayers because funding for Arkansas Future Grants was transferred from other scholarship programs.
Some bills passed earlier this year had an emergency clause, which meant that they took effect on the day the governor signed them. Other bills were appropriations that authorize state agency spending. They took effect at the beginning of the current fiscal year, which was July 1.
July 28, 2017
LITTLE ROCK –The governor, educators and the state’s top telecommunications officials announced that all Arkansas public schools now have access to high speed Internet service.
The project to expand broadband access in schools began two years ago. With its completion, Arkansas is now one of only six states in which all schools have data transmission capacity of at least 100 kilobits per second per student.
Actually, Arkansas is well ahead of that minimum standard and the average capacity is 200 kbps. That means our schools are prepared for future growth in the demand for more broadband. The new network is 40 times faster than the old one.
Charter schools and education-service cooperatives are also connected to the new network.
The new network allows students to take online courses and collaborate on research projects with students in other parts of the world. Video-conferencing and distance learning are now available to all schools. There is less of a possibility of a “digital divide” between the quality of education in urban and rural areas.
The upgrading of Internet access was crucial for schools to comply with Act 187 of 2015, which put Arkansas among the nation’s leaders in offering computer science and computer coding classes in high schools. Texas passed a similar law but did not provide funding for the necessary equipment upgrades, as Arkansas did.
Expanded broadband statewide will not only improve education, but also boost economic development efforts.
Industry recruiters can better promote Arkansas as a place to locate or expand, because the availability of broadband in local schools is a factor that corporate executives take into account, as they do the cost of utilities, the quality of the workforce and the local tax structure.
Competitive companies need a workforce with computer skills, and Arkansas schools are equipping students with the skills most in demand by businesses.
Medicaid Rolls Decline
The state Human Services Department (DHS) continues to remove ineligible people from its roster of Medicaid expansion recipients. At the end of June the total number of people in Arkansas Works, as the program is called, was about 309,000. That is 25,000 fewer people than at the end of January.
State officials have asked the federal government for permission to reduce the number of people eligible for Medicaid expansion even further, by limiting enrollment only to those who earn less than 100 percent of the federal poverty level. The current threshold is 138 percent of the poverty level.
DHS officials have also sought a waiver that would allow the state to impose a work requirement for Arkansas Works, similar to the one required of welfare recipients.
Arkansas Works is usually considered separately from the traditional Medicaid program, which provides health coverage to poor people and people with disabilities. Traditional Medicaid pays for nursing home care for about 75 percent of residents of long-term care facilities in Arkansas. It covers as many as 700,000 Arkansas residents in a typical year.
Arkansas Works is the state’s method of implementing the federal Affordable Care Act.
July 21, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas will hold its annual sales tax holiday on Saturday, August 5, and Sunday, August 6.
Clothing and footwear that cost less than $100 per item will qualify for the exemption. However, if you buy an item that costs more than $100 you must pay the state and local sales taxes on the entire amount.
Accessories costing less than $50 qualify for the exemption. Examples include wallets, watches, jewelry, sun glasses, handbags, cosmetics, briefcases, hair notions, wigs and hair pieces.
Here’s an example provided by the Department of Finance and Administration: a person buys two shirts for $50 each, a pair of jeans for $75 and a pair of shoes for $125. The sales tax will only be collected on the shoes. Even though the total price of the shirts and the jeans added up to $175, no sales tax will be collected on them because each individual item cost less than $100.
School supplies also qualify, including binders, book bags, calculators, tape, paper, pencils, scissors, notebooks, folders and glue.
Textbooks, reference books, maps, globes and workbooks will be exempt from sales taxes. Also exempt from the sales tax will be art supplies needed for art class, such as clay and glazes, paint, brushes and drawing pads.
Bathing suits and beach wear will be exempt as long as they cost less than $100 per item. Diapers and disposable diapers will not be taxed. Boots, including steel-toed boots, slippers, sneakers and sandals will be exempt from the sales tax as well.
Not exempt from the sales tax are sporting goods, such as cleats and spikes worn by baseball, soccer and football players. Recreational items such as skates, shoulder pads, shin guards and ski boots will be taxed.
Computers, software and computer equipment are not exempt and you will have to pay sales taxes if you purchase those items on the holiday.
Act 757 provides that the sales tax holiday will be the first weekend of August every year. All retail stores are required to participate and may not legally collect any state or local sales taxes on qualified items during the tax holiday.
The legislature created the sales tax holiday by approving Act 757 of 2011. One of the goals of the act is to help families with children in school, which is why it is commonly known as the “Back to School” sales tax holiday.
However, everyone benefits from the holiday, whether or not they have children in school.
State highway officials opened bids for 57 projects that totaled $139.4 million. Contracts will be awarded only after each bid is carefully reviewed.
One project accounts for almost half of the total. A low bid of $67.7 million was submitted for rebuilding the Pine Bluff bypass, which is a 10.4 mile section of Interstate 530 that makes an arc on the south side of the city.
Another major project is to resurface 61 miles of Highway 64 in White, Woodruff and Cross Counties. The low bid was for $19.1 million.
July 14, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – Last year 384 Arkansas residents died from an overdose of prescription painkillers.
That is an increase of one person over the previous year, when 383 people died from an overdose of opioid pain medication. In 2014 there were 356 deaths in Arkansas due to opioid overdoses.
The Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor heard a report from the state Health Department on the effectiveness of recently enacted laws designed to curb the alarming surge in abuse of painkillers over the past ten years.
Opioids are the most widely prescribed type of drug in Arkansas. For example, last year 236 million pills were sold in the state, compared to 102 million depressants and 712,000 stimulants.
A Health Department official told the committee that the number of opioids sold in Arkansas in 2016 was enough for every man, woman and child in the state to have taken 80 pills.
Another way of looking at the prevalence of opioid sales is to consider that for every adult over the age of 25 in Arkansas, a prescription for opioids was written.
In the past few years the legislature has enacted a series of laws to address the crisis in abuse of prescription drugs, including Acts 1208, 901, 1114, 1222 and 895 of 2015, Act 1331 of 2013 and Act 304 of 2011.
Act 304 established the prescription drug monitoring program to combat the illegal trade of prescriptions. Act 1331 prevents “doctor shopping,” a practice in which drug abusers go to numerous physicians to obtain prescriptions.
The other laws modify the drug monitoring program, for example, by allowing access to law enforcement officials and licensing boards.
According to the Health Department, the new laws have been effective in reducing “doctor shopping” by half. The number of drug users who went to at least seven physicians or at least seven pharmacies in 2016 was half the number who did so in 2015.
The problem is getting worse, however. The rate of drug-related injuries and deaths due to overdoses has more than doubled since 2000, increasing from 5.1 per 100,000 people to 13.4 per 100,000 people.
The epidemic is not only a challenge for law enforcement and drug abuse treatment programs, it is a strain on the resources of social service agencies. Specifically, it has affected foster care and child welfare programs because the spiraling abuse of opioid prescriptions has resulted in growing numbers of children being removed from their homes.
In 2015 drug or alcohol abuse by the parents was the reason given for removing children from their families in 34.4 percent of all child abuse and neglect cases nationwide. That compares to 18.5 percent in 2000.
In certain areas the problem is even worse. In Ohio last year, drug abuse was the reason cited in more than half of the cases in which a child was removed from his or her family.
Experts are learning that due to the potency of opioids, the recovery period from addiction is longer than it is for cocaine and meth, and the possibilities of a relapse are greater.
When addicted parents spend longer periods in rehab, their children must spend longer periods in foster care. That adds strain to the already over-burdened foster care system.
July 7, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – Thanks to conservative budgeting and a rebound in consumer spending, the state ended Fiscal Year 2017 with a surplus of $15.7 million.
Individuals and businesses were spending more, so sales taxes were strong at the end of the fiscal year. Employment figures were strong, which meant that Arkansans were paying income taxes.
The strong finish to the fiscal year is an abrupt turnaround from late April, when state agencies were notified they had to trim about $70 million from their spending plans due to concerns about a slowdown in revenue. Arkansas operates under a balanced budget law, therefore agencies must reduce spending when revenues fall off.
Because of the strong finish to the fiscal year, all but $10 million of April’s budget cuts were restored.
At the end of the fiscal year, the state spent about $5.35 billion in net general revenue. That is about $19 million less than the previous year.
In Fiscal Year 2017, which ended on June 30, Arkansas collected $2.337 billion in sales taxes. That is an increase of 2.1 percent over the previous year. The state sales tax rate is 6.5 percent and went unchanged from 2016 to 2017. That means the 2.1 percent increase in sales tax revenue represents growth in spending by consumers and businesses. Cities and counties also collect sales taxes, but the revenue from those collections is not part of the state’s final report on Fiscal Year 2017.
Income tax collections for the fiscal year totaled $3.2 billion. That is 2.1 percent above the previous year.
Corporate income tax collections were $434 million, which was almost 11 percent below the previous fiscal year.
Corporate income tax collections traditionally are volatile and hard to gauge because of the timing of moves that corporations make in order to take advantage of state and federal tax laws.
In spite of the difficulty of predicting corporate activity, the $434 million in corporate income taxes collected was 1.1 percent above what budget officials had forecast.
Public schools receive the largest portion of state taxes. They are budgeted to get $2.19 billion this year. The Department of Human Services (DHS) administers Medicaid, the food stamp program, drug and alcohol abuse centers, treatment of people with disabilities and long term care for senior citizens. DHS will get about $1.55 billion of state taxes this year and even more from federal taxes.
The operation of prisons will cost the state more than $341 million. Parole, probation and work release will cost an additional $79 million. The state distributes about $700 million a year to colleges and universities.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 22 states had to adjust spending this fiscal year to meet budget shortfalls. The financial status of most states is stable, but a majority of states report their main challenge is to meet a growing demand for services at the same time that their revenue stream is flat.
States whose economies rely on energy sources, such as oil and gas, are dealing with flat revenue caused by relatively low energy prices. Low commodity prices are a concern in states that depend heavily on agriculture. The uncertain future of Medicaid is a source of concern for many governors and state budget officials.
June 29, 2017
The Arkansas lottery is on track to raising more
than $80 million for college scholarships in Fiscal Year 2017.
When this year’s total amounts are counted, they may not quite equal the amount generated last year. Last year’s sales were enhanced by a tremendously high Powerball jackpot that generated a lot of publicity and public interest in January of 2016. Winners in three states shared about $1.6 billion, and Arkansas lottery ticket sales in January of 2016 set a one-month record of $58.7 million.
Lottery scholarships were awarded to 35,207 college and university students last year. That number includes traditional and non-traditional students, such as older students who return to college after a few years in the work force. Since the lottery began in 2009, almost $700 million has been generated for scholarships.
Lottery tickets are sold at 1,930 retail stores and they will receive about $25 million in commissions this year. The director of the lottery told legislators that the lottery would have met its budget this year if more retailers had signed up to sell tickets.
Arkansas approved a state lottery in the 2008, with 648,122 people voting for it and 383,467 voters against it.
State government adds to lottery scholarship fund with $20 million a year in state tax revenue. The Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarships spent $100 million in Fiscal Year 2015 and $96.5 million in Fiscal Year 2017. This year the program is on pace to spend $85 million.
The initial interest caused by the creation of the lottery has waned. In order to stabilize revenue and perhaps increase ticket sales to prior levels, lottery officials have contracted with marketing firms to promote ticket sales.
Also, several times over the years the legislature has changed the scholarship amounts that students receive. The changes were necessary so that students’ families would be able to budget for the cost of college over the long term. When high school graduates earn scholarships, their families should know how much it will be worth over the course of the students’ college career, whether they are in a two-year college or a four-year university.
Act 1105 of 2015 is the most recent legislative change in scholarship amounts. Scholarship recipients at four-year universities receive $1,000 dollars in their freshman year and $4,000 their sophomore year. If they maintain a grade point average of 2.5, they get $4,000 dollars their junior year and $5,000 dollars their senior year.
Recipients who attend two-year colleges receive $1,000 dollars their first year and $3,000 dollars their second year.
The amounts are structured so that students have a strong financial incentive to stay in school and do well. It is a goal of legislators, educators and business leaders to encourage more Arkansas students to earn a degree. An educated work force is more attractive to corporate executives looking to locate or expand, especially in industries that demand high-tech skills.
Students also have to complete a minimum number of courses in order to continue being eligible during their college years. As of last year, high school graduates applying for the first time must score at least 19 on the ACT college entrance exam.
June 23, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – The Senate and House Education Committees have begun work on the
next adequacy determination for public schools.
Funding levels for this year and next year have already been set, which means that the legislative adequacy study now underway is going to determine school funding levels for fiscal years 2020 and 2021.
The adequacy study includes visits to selected schools across Arkansas, as well as surveys of superintendents, principals and teachers. It also includes data from the Arkansas Public School Computer Network, which keeps records on student achievement, school finances and facilities.
By November 1, the Education Committees will decide whether current adequacy funding levels need to be amended. If so, those changes would be considered in the 2018 fiscal session. A final report will be due by November 1, 2018, for consideration by the legislature in the next regular session in 2019.
Determining an adequate level of school funding is at the top of the legislatures’ priorities every year. In 2002 the Arkansas Supreme Court ruled that school funding did not comply with mandates in the state Constitution that every child should receive an adequate education.
The court’s ruling cited “abysmal” rankings in national rankings of schools, the tremendous need for remediation by college freshmen, wide disparities of teacher salaries within the state, lack of opportunities for special needs children and children in high poverty areas and a failure to address the needs of schools in high growth areas. The court clarified that it was the responsibility of state government to ensure the adequacy of education across Arkansas.
In a lengthy special session and in subsequent regular sessions, the legislature adopted more rigorous standards and dramatically increased funding for yearly operations of schools and to improve school equipment and facilities.
In 2007 the Supreme Court ruled that the legislature’s actions complied with constitutional mandates on education. Since then Arkansas has moved up in national assessments of public schools, has increased the percentage of adults who graduate from high school and increased teacher salaries.
The school funding lawsuit that prompted the Supreme Court’s rulings was known as the Lake View case. The Lake View School District was a small, rural district in eastern Arkansas that has since been consolidated with Barton-Lexa, a neighboring district.
The adequacy report will be the cornerstone for writing the state budget, because one outcome of the Lake View case is that schools must be funded first. Also, school funding is protected from budget cuts during periods of economic stagnation.
The Education Committees’ funding recommendations for adequacy will serve as a basis for the governor’s proposed budget for education. Adequate funding levels must be based on evidence of the needs of school districts, and not based on the amount of money available after political give-and-take among the various state agencies that are financed by the state.
About 44 percent of Arkansas tax revenue goes to education from kindergarten through grade 12. State appropriations account for roughly half of the school districts’ revenue, with local property taxes generating about 40 percent and federal funding about 10 percent.
The total of state and local foundation funding in Arkansas is about $3 billion, which this year amounts to $6,646 per student. Additional funding is allotted to schools for students with special needs.
June 16, 2017
Legislators are moving ahead with a financing plan that allows an additional 500
people with developmental disabilities to move off a waiting list and get
services that will help them live more independently.
During this year’s regular session lawmakers approved Act 50 and Act 775, both designed to help people with development disabilities. Act 50 allows $8.7 million from a state settlement with tobacco companies to be used to match about $20 million in federal funding. The funds will help 500 people get services. The waiting list now has about 3,000 people on it.
Act 775 is a more comprehensive change to the overall system of paying for services, with the intent of eliminating excessive and unnecessary costs. The act creates a Provider-led Managed Care system.
Usually providers are non-profit organizations that receive Medicaid reimbursements for treating and caring for people. The state provides about 30 percent of the cost of care and the federal government provides 70 percent.
Besides reimbursing private providers for home and community services, state government also operates long term care residential facilities for people with the most severe developmental disabilities. They’re called Human Development Centers and they are at Arkadelphia, Booneville, Conway, Jonesboro and Warren.
Arkansas tries to provide a balanced array of services across a spectrum that includes institutional care for people with the most severe disabilities, as well as appropriate levels of support for people who want to live with their families or in a group home.
Under the model created by Act 775, providers will become responsible for the care and treatment of about 30,000 Arkansas residents whose medical needs drive up Medicaid spending. Under Act 775 care-giving organizations will be allowed to form what will be known as a Provider-led Arkansas Shared Savings Entity, or PASSE. They will assume the risks and share in the cost savings of treating people whose medical needs are expensive. Those categories include mental illness, substance abuse and disabilities.
One goal is to lower costs by eliminating gaps in care, thus reducing the number of cases in which acute and emergency care is necessary.
According to a consultant hired by the legislature, the majority of Medicaid spending is for the elderly, people with disabilities and people with mental illness. For example, Medicaid serves more than 450,000 Arkansans over the age of 65.
According to the consultant, the Human Development Centers care for about 925 people with developmental disabilities at an annual cost of $159 million. The state provides support services to another 4,200 people with developmental disabilities to help them live in their home communities, at an annual cost of $197 million.
Last year the state and federal governments spent more than $6.5 billion on the Arkansas Medicaid program, according to the Department of Human Services, which administers it.
Legislators are pursuing another strategy for holding down total Medicaid costs, which is to rely on independent assessments of the medical needs of people who apply for services.
More than 12,300 providers participate in Arkansas Medicaid. They include physicians, pharmacists, dentists, hospitals, vision care providers, medical equipment companies, various types of therapists and nurse practitioners.
June 2 2017
LITTLE ROCK – Two important deadlines are approaching for students seeking financial aid to attend a state-supported college or university.
June 15 is the deadline to apply for the popular Academic Challenge Scholarships, which are funded by the lottery and which help about 30,000 students every year. July 1 is the deadline for applying for an ARFuture grant, which will cover tuition and fees for students who major in science, technology, engineering and math.
The application process is simple. Search for the web page of the state Department of Higher Education by typing in “scholarships.adhe.edu” and clicking on the YOUniversal Scholarship Application.
To qualify for a lottery scholarship a student must score at least 19 on the ACT college entrance exam. Once in college they have to maintain a 2.5 grade point average.
With the passage of Act 597 of 2017 the legislature changed the law so that, for the first time, graduate students can receive the scholarships.
The scholarship awards are structured to provide a strong incentive for students to complete their freshman year and stay on course towards earning a degree. The lottery scholarship award is $1,000 for freshmen. Students at a two-year college receive $3,000 their second year. Students enrolled in a four-year university who maintain the 2.5 GPA will receive $4,000 in both their sophomore and junior years. As seniors they receive $5,000.
In the regular session earlier this year the governor proposed and the legislature approved Act 316 to create the ARFutures grant program.
The grants will pay for two years of tuition and fees for students pursuing certificates or associates’ degrees in fields of high demand, such as computer science, technology and welding.
Students who receive a grant must participate in a mentor program and a community service program. After their graduation they must work full-time in Arkansas for at least three years. If they leave the state, the grant is converted into a loan and must be repaid.
Higher education officials estimate that about 7,000 students will receive ARFuture grants. The grants are not for a specific amount because each institution has different fees and tuition charges. Higher education officials estimate that the average cost is about $3,600 a year.
Scholarship applicants must fill out a form for FAFSA, which stands for Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
The state of Arkansas is due to receive more than $14.6 million in a legal settlement with the manufacturers of Volkswagen cars. Information about the settlement is on the web site of the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality.
Volkswagen was sued for allegedly violating clean air laws by the state of California and the federal Environmental Protection Agency. The agencies alleged that Volkswagen tampered with emission control devices in order to skirt clean air laws.
The alleged tampering occurred on about 500,000 cars and 80,000 diesel powered vehicles sold between 2009 and 2016.
Nationwide, Volkswagen will pay the states about $2.9 billion. States will use the money to fund air pollution reduction efforts. Specifically, the money will go toward improving air quality by reducing the amounts of nitrogen oxides (NOx), ozone, and fine particles in the atmosphere.
May 26, 2017
LITTLE ROCK – The state Higher Education Coordinating Board began work on a new funding formula for colleges and universities, based on legislation enacted during this years’ regular session.
Act 148 of 2017 directs to board to adopt a funding formula based on productivity measures such as the number of students who complete their degree requirements. The previous formula was based more on enrollment.
The new formula also takes into account factors like affordability. For example, under the new formula colleges and universities will have an incentive to help students graduate on time. When students take five, six or seven years to complete their degree requirements the final cost of their education is much greater and they are likely to have a much heavier loan to pay off.
Also, institutions will be encouraged to help students complete their degree requirements more efficiently. For example, if the requirement for an associate’s degree is 60 hours and a student ends up taking 66 hours in order to satisfy those requirements, it will cost more. Similarly, a student who earns a university degree by completing 120 hours will spend less than a student who takes 126 or 132 hours.
One reason that students take more than the required number of hours is that they change majors in midstream. That happens if they choose a major for which they are not academically prepared, or if they choose a major unadvisedly during their first semester as a freshman and later change their mind.
Two-year colleges would be rewarded in the funding formula for the number of students who transfer to a four-year university with 30 credit hours in core courses.
For years the legislature has worked to make it easier for students to keep the credits they have earned when they transfer from one institution to another.
In 2007 the legislature approved Act 472 requiring colleges and universities to inform students at registration if a course would be transferable to other state-supported colleges and universities.
In 2009 the legislature passed Act 182 creating a set of fully transferable credit hours from two-year colleges to four-year universities. The purpose was to eliminate obstacles to the transfer of credits by requiring four-year universities to accept all hours earned under the new system. The state Higher Education Coordinating Board determined which courses would be fully transferable.
Also in 2009 the legislature approved Act 964 to study the affordability of higher education at Arkansas public colleges and universities.
Several bills enacted in 2007 sought to hold down the sky-rocketing cost of text books.
There are more steps that higher education officials and legislators must take before the new funding formula receives its final approval. Those steps include a public comment period.
Institutions will receive incentives for educating non-traditional older students and students from under-served areas. On the other hand, the new formula is designed to prevent them from lowering academic standards in order to make it easier for students to earn a degree.
According to the formula, completion of students’ educational goals should be the highest priority for each of the state’s 10 public universities and 22 colleges.
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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