State Senator Larry Teague

(c)Dixie Knight Photo

District 10 State Senator

Larry Teague
P.O. Box 903
Nashville, AR 71852
(870) 845-5303
Larry.Teague@senate.ar.gov

November 26, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – State agencies have experienced the same problems as many companies with difficulty hiring entry-level employees.

Several agencies have contacted the state Office of Personnel Management (OPM) to report a difficulties attracting applicants for available positions.

OPM put together a proposal that allows for higher entry-level salaries for all state agencies and presented it to legislators in June.

A broad approach was proposed, rather than simply raising salaries at a few specific agencies. OPM was aware of the possibility of a ripple effect that would cause employees to leave one agency to work at another.

“This becomes particularly critical at the county levels where everyone tracks the salaries of others,” OPM officials wrote in a letter to the Legislative Council’s Personnel Subcommittee.

“There has been increased media attention regarding salary increases of jobs within the national economy requiring less strenuous qualifications and duties,” OPM officials wrote.

Some private companies offer bonuses and some help new employees pay their college tuition. The letter specifically mentioned salary increases announced by Walmart, Tyson, Chipotle, McDonald’s and Amazon.

The Personnel Subcommittee reviewed the request for higher salaries for jobs at the bottom of the scale. Not all state agencies have taken advantage and raised salaries, but some major divisions have.

For example, the state Board of Correction has approved changes to its pay grid that will raise salaries for more than 3,500 prison staff.

According to the Office of Personnel Management letter, other agencies have experienced difficulty hiring new staff, including the Human Services Department and the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.

Employees could receive raises as high as $5,000 a year, depending on their duties and their job’s slot in the state pay grid.

In their request for authority to raise entry-level salaries, officials at the Department of Finance and Administration (DFA) mentioned the pressures on the Office of Child Support Enforcement. The office has about 600 employees in 27 offices around Arkansas.

Their work is high volume and demands acute accuracy. They prepare documents for legal cases that are often contested by one of the parties in a divorce or child support case.

Employees must communicate professionally with parents of children in disputed cases, and with businesses that employ those parents, officials within law enforcement, the judicial system and other state agencies.

The work is “often high stress due to the subject matter and the level of conflict that sometimes exists in the families we serve,” DFA officials wrote.

Historically, DFA would get 100 applications when a job became available. Now, the agency receives only seven or eight applications for each job opening.

Often, the agency offers people jobs and they accept. However, before their first day on the job they will call to say that they have found a better paying job somewhere else.

“DFA is simply not able to compete for qualified employees in the current environment,” agency officials said.

The pandemic has worsened the problem because many people are concerned about working with a steady flow of customers, such as a revenue office where people renew licenses.

November 12, 2021

LITTLE ROCK –Solar power is growing in popularity in Arkansas, in large part because of passage of Act 464 of 2019.

Last year solar energy accounted for six percent of the electric power generated in Arkansas, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That is 60 times more solar power than was generated in the state in 2015.

Nationwide, the amount of electricity generated from renewable resources has quadrupled since 2011. Wind power and geothermal springs are other sources of renewable energy, but neither is growing in Arkansas as fast as solar power.

Act 464 allows third-party financing of solar projects, which is especially helpful to tax-exempt organizations and government entities that otherwise would not qualify for federal tax incentives for installing solar panels.

Colleges, universities, school districts, counties, churches, prison units and non-profit organizations have taken advantage of Act 464 to sign leasing agreements with third parties that install solar power systems.

When the legislature passed Act 464 in 2019, Arkansas joined 26 other states that allowed third party financing of solar projects.

Act 464 made another significant change in regulations governing the production of electric power. It raised the limit for commercial customers of electric utilities that have solar systems, from 300 kilowatts to 1,000 kilowatts. That provision helped Senate co-sponsors of Act 464 recruit support from a range of private companies.

An estimated 16,000 Arkansans work in renewable energy, according to an estimate by a trade association that represents solar power installers.

The state Public Service Commission regulates utilities, and its rate cases and policy decisions are very complex. A Senate co-sponsor of Act 464 credited the chairman of the PSC with helping to shepherd the bill through the legislature.

As Act 464 was going through the legislative process, an issue that had to be resolved was the impact on net-metering customers. Those are customers who generate their own electricity, sometimes in excess of what they need. They send the excess power to the electric utility and get credit for it.

A point of contention between utilities and net-metering customers is the value of the excess electricity that the customer sends to the utility’s power grid.

Utilities have fixed costs beyond the expense of operating power plants. For example, they have to maintain a power grid with transmission lines. Those fixed costs are spread out to all the utility’s customers, both residential and industrial.

Act 464 allows net-metering customers to send electricity to the utility’s power grid. At the same time, it allows utilities to take steps to prevent inordinate shifts in their fixed costs to other types of customers.

The legislature also promoted more efficient energy use by passing Act 507 of 2019, which allows government entities to issue bonds for energy savings projects. School districts can choose to participate.

It allows energy performance contracts to extend beyond 20 years if the project is guaranteed to last more than 20 years, and if the project’s useful life is more than 20 years. Many solar projects meet the criteria.

More than 9,000 jobs have been created because of the incentives in the energy performance contract program.

November 5, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – In a settlement of a major lawsuit, pharmaceutical manufacturers who make and market opioids will pay $216 million to Arkansas cities, counties and state government.

The money will be spent on prevention and treatment of people who became addicted to painkillers such as hydrocodone, oxycodone and fentanyl.

Arkansas was one of 40 states who sued drug companies over their trade practices. Thousands of cities and counties in the United States joined the lawsuit. In July, four companies agreed to pay $26 billion to settle a flood of litigation.

The lawsuit was unprecedented because of the number of jurisdictions that joined the fight. The lawsuit was initiated in 2018, when 72 Arkansas counties and 210 cities joined the state in seeking damages from the pharmaceutical manufacturers. The plaintiffs represent about 90 percent of the population of Arkansas.

The plaintiffs argued that drug companies should pay the enormous costs of drug treatment and rehabilitation, rather than taxpayers.

According to the federal Centers for Disease Control, more than 500,000 Americans died from overdoses of painkillers in a 10-year period.

The Covid-19 pandemic made the opioid epidemic even worse. According to federal authorities, 93,000 people died from an overdose last year. The previous record was 72,000 deaths from opioid overdoses.

The CDC reports that in 1970, there were only 7,200 deaths due to overdoses of prescription painkillers. In 1970, drug enforcement was focused on an alarming rise in heroin use.

In 1988, when law enforcement was battling a surge in the use of crack cocaine, about 9,000 Americans died from abusing painkillers.

The alarming rise in the number of deaths from overdoses has coincided with large increases in the sales of painkillers. For example, in Arkansas in 2017 there were more prescriptions for painkillers than there were people. Enough opioids were prescribed in Arkansas for each person to have 80 pills.

Nationwide, drug companies have been paying hundreds of millions to plaintiffs. An Oklahoma judge ordered one company to pay $465 million in 2019. However, in a legal first, drug manufacturers won a legal battle in California recently, when a judge ruled that government officials had failed to prove that drug companies used deceptive marketing practices.

A key component in the lawsuits is that drug companies downplayed the risks of addiction when they marketed opioids to physicians. Also, the plaintiffs alleged that drug companies overemphasized the benefits of opioids in treating chronic pain over long term periods of time.

In the 1970s and 1980s, opioids were more commonly prescribed for short-term relief of pain, usually after surgery, or for pain from a terminal illness such as cancer.

According to reports from the Mayo Clinic, OxyContin was approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration in 1995. Its makers began aggressively marketing it for chronic pain in 1998, producing 15,000 videos for primary care physicians.

“The promotional message encouraged prescribers to use this opioid as an ongoing treatment for chronic pain and highlighted the lack of side effects,” Mayo reported. The annual number of prescriptions for OxyContin increased from 670,000 to 6.2 million between 1997 and 2002.

October 22, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – State government will collect more in tax revenue this year than previously estimated, according to a revised forecast by the Department of Finance and Administration.

The department notified the Legislative Council that revenue for the current fiscal year would be $246 million more than was projected earlier, when legislators finalized a state budget.

The revised forecast means that state government will end the current fiscal year with a surplus of $263 million, rather than the $17 million that legislators put in a restricted reserve account earlier this year.

Under the new forecast, Arkansas will have $6.1 billion to spend from state taxes. The current budget year, Fiscal Year 2022, ends on June 30, 2022. The main sources of state revenue are sales taxes, about $2.9 billion, individual income taxes and almost 4 billion, corporate income taxes of about $652 million.

The expected surplus will be available even after all spending categories in the Revenue Stabilization Act are funded. The act is how Arkansas operates under a balanced budget every year. The legislature prioritizes spending programs by placing them in categories labelled A, B and C.

This fiscal year, all three categories should be fully funded and the surplus will be available in future fiscal years.

That sets the stage for possible tax cuts. The governor has announced that he wants to call a special session to lower state income tax rates. He and his staff are working with legislative leaders on proposed tax cuts that would save Arkansas families several hundred million dollars a year when they are fully in effect.

One tricky aspect of a possible tax cut is a so-called “trigger,” which is language that would postpone tax reductions in the event of an unexpected drop in revenue. Lawmakers want to ensure that state revenue is sufficient to maintain vital services such as education, health care and public safety.

Arkansas Exports

Last year Arkansas ranked 38th in the country in the value of its export products, according to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Arkansas exports were valued at $5.2 billion, which actually represented a decrease from the previous year of about 16 percent.

As was the case in previous years, Canada was our top destination for exported products. About 22 percent of Arkansas exports, valued at $1.5 billion, were sold in Canada last year.

Mexico was the second highest purchaser of Arkansas products, buying about $712 million worth of goods.

Aircraft and spacecraft were the largest category of export products made in Arkansas last year. They were valued at $1 billion and accounted for almost 20 percent of all Arkansas products sold abroad. The top three destinations for aircraft products were France, the Netherlands and Brazil.

Mexico and China were the largest markets for Arkansas poultry. Mexican companies bought $$82 million worth of poultry and Chinese firms bought $48 million worth of poultry from Arkansas producers. Guatemala bought $27 million worth of Arkansas poultry, and companies in Canada bought $21 million worth of poultry.

October 15, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The market for workers’ compensation insurance remains competitive in Arkansas, thanks to efforts by the legislature to hold down rates.

According to the most recent data available from the National Council on Compensation Insurance, Arkansas has some of the lowest rankings for losses. Factors that drive rates include the frequency of claims, medical costs and the price of prescription drugs.

There are two major markets from which employers purchase workers’ comp insurance. One is voluntary and the other is the assigned risk pool, for jobs that are too risky or too expensive for the ordinary market. The top five categories that are covered in the assigned risk pool are in the construction industry.

Earlier this year 185 companies in Arkansas were removed from the assigned risk plan and got coverage in the voluntary market, saving them on average 5.35 percent in premiums.

In 2020 Arkansas had the lowest loss costs in the region, per each $100 of payroll. It was 50 cents per $100, compared to a regional average of 69 cents and a national average of 91 cents. The cost of premiums in Arkansas is stable or declining because of declines in loss costs.

In the early 1990s workers’ comp insurance was about to become too expensive for many employers to afford. Annual rate increases were in the double digits. For example, premiums went up by 15 percent and 18 percent in 1991 and 1992.

The legislature passed Act 796 of 1993, and the effect on the market was clear and significant, according to the Insurance Department’s most recent annual report. Anticipated rate increases in 1993 and 1994 did not occur. It was the first time in 10 years that rates did not go up.

The Insurance Department reached the conclusion that the voluntary market in Arkansas would possibly have disappeared without Act 796, leaving the assigned risk pool as the only market for workers’ comp insurance.

The act created a division within the Insurance Department assigned to investigate fraud, and set financial penalties for fraudulently making workers’ comp claims. According to the Insurance Department report, “before the passage of Act 796 of 1993, there had never been a criminal prosecution in Arkansas for workers’ compensation fraud committed by employees, employers or healthcare providers.”

In 2005 the division’s authority was expanded to investigate all forms of insurance fraud and it was renamed the Criminal Investigation Division of the Insurance Department.

In 2020 the Division got 40 referrals, of which 20 were investigated. One case was referred to local prosecutors, but it was subsequently closed for lack of evidence. Since the Division was created in 1993, it has referred 167 cases for prosecution, resulting in 123 convictions.

In three cases the defendant was acquitted and in all the remaining cases the charges were not filed by prosecutors.

In cases in which there is not sufficient evidence to prosecute, often the threat of prosecution is motivation for the parties to settle out of court, according to the Insurance Department.

The overwhelming majority of cases investigated by the Division are for other forms of insurance fraud. Only 3.5 percent of its cases are investigations of workers’ comp fraud.

October 8, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – In an extension of this year’s regular session the legislature drew new boundaries for the four Congressional districts in Arkansas, and approved exemptions for workers at companies that require staff to be vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus.

The legislature was prepared to convene again, in the event that the governor vetoes any of the bills and lawmakers want to override the veto.

The new map of Congressional districts will divide two counties. Sebastian County will be divided between the Third District of northwest Arkansas and the Fourth District of southern Arkansas.

Pulaski County will be divided three ways. The western half of the county will be in the Second District. Traditionally, an undivided Pulaski County has been the centerpiece of the Second District of central Arkansas.

The new map will put southeastern Pulaski County in the First Congressional District, which covers much of eastern Arkansas. The First District includes the counties along the Mississippi River and a band of counties along the northern border with Missouri.

A sliver of southern Pulaski County, in Little Rock, will be in the Fourth District, which is a geographically large district that covers southwest Arkansas.

The Second District will include northwest Pulaski County, as well as Saline, Perry, Faulkner, Conway, Van Buren, Cleburne and White Counties.

Boone, Marion, Baxter, Stone and Searcy Counties will in the First District, which covers northeast Arkansas.

Carroll, Crawford and Madison Counties will be in the Third District, along with the major population centers of Washington and Benton Counties and northern Sebastian County.

The counties along the Louisiana border and the Texas border will be in the Fourth District, except for Chicot County in the southeastern corner of the state. It will be in the First District, along with other Delta counties where row crop agriculture is prevalent.

The Fourth District will extend from Texarkana northward to include southern Sebastian County. The Fourth District will extend north across the Arkansas River to take in Franklin, Johnson, Pope and Newton Counties. It also will include Jefferson County, Grant County, Hot Spring County and Garland County.

Ashley and Drew Counties will be in the Fourth District; Lincoln County will be in the First District.

Under legislation passed by the Senate and House, companies that require their workers to be vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus would have to provide exemptions for employees who are tested weekly.

Also, they would be exempt if they could show that they have antibodies, which the body produces after a person contracts the virus. Tests for antibodies could not exceed twice a year.

The cost of testing would be paid by any state or federal funding available. If no government funding is available, the cost would be paid by the employee.

Employees who comply with the testing requirements shall not be terminated, and if they are terminated in violation of the law, they may be eligible for unemployment benefits.

The exemption process will expire July 31, 2023, unless the legislature extends it. There is no emergency clause on the legislation, so it takes effect 90 days after the official adjournment of the extended session.

October 1, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature reconvened to draw new boundaries for the four Congressional districts in Arkansas, and to consider responses to federal vaccination mandates.

The Senate made very slow progress, because of the long-term importance of the measures and their controversial nature.

When the session began, at least 18 proposed maps of Congressional districts had been introduced. As lawmakers discussed and worked on revisions, numerous other maps were proposed that reflect compromises. Much of the discussion was about whether to split counties into two or more separate Congressional districts, and which counties would be split.

The map of the state’s Congressional districts will reflect how Arkansas is represented in Washington, D.C. for the next 10 years.

The Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor had on its agenda a series of bills affecting the rights of individuals when the federal government or their employers require them to be vaccinated against the Covid-19 virus.

Before the Senate began discussion of the merits of those bills, there was lengthy and heated debate on whether it was even proper to consider them. The dispute centered around language in House Concurrent Resolution 1015, which the legislature adopted in March to authorize an extension of the 2021 session.

An extension was needed because the legislature could not draw Congressional district maps during the regular session, which took place from January through April. That’s because the U.S. Census Bureau hadn’t released population data yet.

Rather than adjourn last spring, we adopted HCR 1015 allowing us to return to the Capitol this fall, after the census data was finally ready, to draw new Congressional district maps.

HCR 1015 also allows the legislature to consider “legislation related to the COVID-19 public health emergency and distribution of COVID-19 relief funds.”

The Senate was almost evenly divided over the extent that HCR 1015 allowed the introduction of measures that address our response to the pandemic, but are not specifically related to relief funds.

The lieutenant governor presides over the Senate, and he ruled that HCR 1015 allowed the introduction of the Senate bills in question. The lieutenant governor took into account a precedent set in a state Supreme Court ruling from a similar dispute that occurred when the legislature went into extended recess in 1979.

To novices the debate may have looked like a tempest in a teapot, because so much was about procedure. However, senators took it very seriously because the long-term implications are so important.

One outcome is that the legislature will decide the extent to which Arkansas will resist federal vaccination mandates.

Another outcome of this session is that the legislature will decide how much it intends to test the limits of its constitutional power, in relation to the judicial and the executive branches of state government.

After the legislature has adjourned the extended session, the governor is expected to call a special session to consider reductions in the state income tax.

September 24, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The Senate and House Committees on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs are reviewing bills to draw new geographic boundaries for the four Congressional Districts in Arkansas, in preparation for a session of the entire legislature at the end of the month.

At its first meeting the joint committee reviewed three proposed House bills. All three would move Pope County to the Fourth Congressional District, which encompasses most of southern Arkansas.

Pope County has been part of the Third Congressional District of northwest Arkansas.

The population of Northwest Arkansas has grown tremendously since 2011, when the current Congressional Districts were drawn. South Arkansas lost population during the same decade.

Moving Pope County from the Third to the Fourth District is an effort to make the two more equal in population.

At the second meeting of the State Agencies Committees, legislators scheduled a review of three Senate proposals and a fourth House proposal.

The three Senate bills would also move Pope County. They also would divide Pulaski County between two or three separate Congressional Districts. Pulaski County has traditionally been the largest population hub of the Second District of central Arkansas.

Another issue to be decided by state legislators is whether to place Chicot and Desha Counties in the First or the Fourth District. The counties are in the southeast corner of the state, where the White River and the Arkansas River join the Mississippi River.

Farmers in both counties raise row crops such as soybeans, corn, rice, wheat and cotton.

The First District of eastern Arkansas is known for its row crop agriculture. The Fourth District is known for its forests and timber production.

Since 2011 Chicot and Desha Counties have been in the First Congressional District.

The State Agencies Committees will meet a third time before the entire legislature is scheduled to convene on September 29 to approve new maps.

Statewide Broadband Consultant

The state is close to hiring a consultant that will develop a master plan for broadband expansion.

Three state departments will choose from private firms that are bidding on the $4 million contract. They are the Commerce Department, the Finance and Administration Department and the Parks, Heritage and Tourism Department.

Department directors told the Legislative Council that a selection should be ready for lawmakers to review within about a week.

When the question arose about the involvement of Parks and Tourism, one senator noted that the department has land across Arkansas “where there is zero broadband coverage.”

Arkansas has approved $279 million for 132 broadband projects, and the governor announced that he would try to invest an additional $250 million in grants this year for Internet expansion.

The legislature facilitated the process of getting broadband grants when it created the Rural Broadband ID program last year.

Rural Broadband ID grants help local governments pay for data such as due-diligence studies, surveys and maps of available service. That information usually costs more than a small town has available in its annual budget.

September 17, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – Enrollment has dropped at many state-supported colleges and universities because of disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

However, the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville reported a healthy increase in its student population. The university has 29,068 students enrolled, which is 5.5 percent more than last year.

Institutions make a preliminary count on the 11th day of the fall semester.

Arkansas State University reported enrollment this fall of 13,772 students. That is a decrease of 0.5 percent since last year.

Enrollment at the University of Central Arkansas at Conway is down about 2.2 percent from last year, to 10,105 students.

This semester Arkansas Tech has seen a decline of 10.9 percent in enrollment at its campuses in Russellville and Ozark, to a total of 9,645.

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock has a decreased enrollment of 6.8 percent. The total number of students in its graduate and undergraduate programs is 8,297, according to preliminary headcounts reported to the state Higher Education Division.

The University of Arkansas at Monticello has 2,673 students, a decline of 1.7 percent since last year.

Enrollment is 4,434 at South Arkansas University at Magnolia. That’s the same as last year Henderson State in Arkadelphia enrolled 2,914 students, which is down 7.9 percent from last year.

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff reported an enrollment gain of three percent, to a total of 2,748 students.

The University of Arkansas at Fort Smith, with 5,444 students, is down 7.5 percent from last year.

In all, Arkansas state-supported universities saw a drop of 1.1 percent in enrollment, to 92,188 students.

The most popular college scholarship program in Arkansas is the Academic Challenge Scholarship, which is paid for with revenue from lottery tickets. Last year the lottery scholarships were awarded to 30,580 students.

Since 2011 the program has distributed more than a billion dollars in scholarships.

The sale of lottery tickets is affected by the size of the jackpots in Powerball and Mega Millions. When the lottery has an enormous prize at stake, sales go up and more revenue is placed into scholarships.

To qualify for the Academic Challenge Scholarship, students must take a full load. That means 12 hours in their first semester after high school, and 15 hours in all subsequent semesters. They must have a composite score of 19 or higher on the ACT standardized college admission test.

The average ACT score of last year’s high school graduates who went to an Arkansas college and received an Academic Challenge Scholarship was 22.7.

To keep the scholarship they must maintain a cumulative grade point average of 2.5, where a grade of A is 4.0, a grade of B is 3.0 and a grade of C is 2.0.

After their first academic year they must have completed 27 hours of course work, and after each following year they must complete 30 hours.

The state Division of Higher Education web site has information about paying for college, how to apply for scholarships and how to apply for student loans. The Internet address is www.adhe.edu

August 27, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – A federal appeals court has ruled in favor of the state Education Department, and against four south Arkansas school districts that want to be exempt from the state school choice law.

The Hope, Camden-Fairview, Junction City and Lafayette County School Districts had argued in court that if they had to comply with the Arkansas School Choice Act of 2017, white flight would create a new era of segregation in their classrooms.

The 2017 act was the most recent of several school choice laws that the legislature has enacted over the past 30 years. Before 2017, the four districts had been allowed to exempt themselves from state school choice laws. That’s because previous state laws allowed exemptions for schools under federal court orders to desegregate.

The four districts went to court because the 2017 school choice law denied them the ability to exempt themselves, as they had been able to do previously.

Last week a three-judge panel of the Eighth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled against the four districts and in favor of the state. The state attorney general defended the state Education Department and the 2017 school choice act.

If discrimination still exists within the four school districts it cannot be directly traced to the Arkansas school choice law, the federal judges wrote. Even though the four districts are under federal court order to desegregate, those orders have been in place for many years and are “dormant,” they said.

A lower court abused its discretion when it originally decided in favor of the four districts and blocked student transfers, the federal appellate judges said.

“We also note that we have concerns about these desegregation orders continuing in place. The orders have been in place for decades,” the judges on the Eighth Circuit wrote in their majority opinion. “Such entrenched federal oversight should have raised red flags long ago… It is unclear on this record if there is any reason for the continued federal oversight.”

The four districts were sued decades ago for racial discrimination against African-American students and staff.

Since those initial lawsuits were decided, the four districts have been operating under federal court orders to desegregate.

However, the panel of judges on the U.S. Eighth Circuit Court called those old court orders “dormant” and said “it may be wise” for a lower court to consider removing the schools from federal jurisdiction.

On the other hand, a dissenting judge said that evidence presented by the four districts clearly demonstrates the problems caused by white flight.

The evidence indicates that a large majority of the student transfer requests came from white families. For example, one year Hope schools received 70 requests for transfers out of the district, and 68 were from white families.

The Lafayette County district lost 30 white students one year when it was not exempt from the school choice law.

A former superintendent of Camden-Fairview testified that the district was able to desegregate schools because of its exemption from the school choice law.

In a prepared statement, the state attorney general said that the Eighth Circuit ruling was a win for parents affirming their right to choose schools that best suit the needs of their children.

August 20, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The number of people who live in Arkansas increased by about 95,600 over the past 10 years, a growth rate of 3.3 percent that brought the state’s population to more than three million people.

The population of the entire United States grew by 7.4 percent, to more than 332 million people.

After months of delay, the U.S. Census Bureau finally released a preliminary version of its new census report last week. The Bureau conducts a census every 10 years.

The new population count is important because it will be the basis for distributing almost $10 billion in federal funding, through 55 U.S. government programs. For example, five years ago almost $500 million in Medicaid funding went to Arkansas based on the previous census from 2010.

Federal matching funds are distributed to the 50 states through a formula that takes into account population and per capita income, as derived from census data.

Census data is a factor in federal funding for highway construction, public housing, foster care, assistance with utility bills, school lunch programs, senior citizens centers, grants for vocational rehabilitation and welfare.

That’s why local elected officials worked so hard last year to make sure everyone responded to census surveys. Undercounts are worse in isolated, rural areas and in low-income neighborhoods.

The financial impact of population loss is one the reason that some local elected officials are trying to generate support for a recount in areas where population declines have been the most dramatic. However, the odds are strongly against a recount by the Census Bureau.

In Arkansas, cities gained population and rural areas lost population. Of the state’s 75 counties, 53 lost population.

The largest gains were in Benton County, whose population grew by 28.5 percent, and Washington County, which grew by 21.1 percent. Both counties are in northwest Arkansas, where the local economy has consistently thrived over the past few decades.

In central Arkansas, Pulaski County grew by 4.3 percent, Saline County by 15.2 percent, Faulkner County by 11.3 percent and Lonoke County by 7.2 percent.

In northeast Arkansas, Craighead County grew by 14.4 and Greene County by 7.7 percent.

Census data affects more than a region’s government funding, but also its political influence. The legislature will use the new data to draw new maps of the state’s four Congressional Districts. The total population of Arkansas remained relatively stable over the past 10 years, therefore we continue to be represented in Washington by four members of Congress.

Texas grew in population so much that it will gain two Congressional seats. Florida, North Carolina, Colorado, Oregon and Montana will add one Congressional seat.

New York, California, Illinois, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan and West Virginia will each lose one Congressional seat, which means those states will lose some political influence in Washington.

The state Board of Apportionment, consisting of the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state, will use the new census data to draw new maps of legislative districts. There are 35 Senate districts. There are 100 districts in the state House of Representatives.

When the redistricting process is complete, probably by the end of the year, all House and Senate districts will have roughly the same number of voters.

August 13, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Legislative Council approved a funding request of more than $245 million to help hospitals and nursing homes recruit and retain staff, and to cope with extraordinary expenses caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The money comes from a massive federal act known as the American Rescue Plan, which sends about $1,573 billion to Arkansas state government and an additional $1 billion to Arkansas cities and counties. Other ARP funds will go to schools and for capital projects.

The Legislative Council is the main body of lawmakers who meet in the interim between legislative sessions to oversee state government operations. The Council met soon after the conclusion of the recent special session to consider the health emergency funding requests.

The pandemic has strained the capacity of Arkansas health care facilities in numerous ways. Staff are working long hours. So many beds are occupied by Covid patients that other units in hospitals sometimes lack space for patients with other ailment and injuries. Testing of staff is constant, and continues to add to the cost of operations.

According to the request for funding from the state Department of Human Services, the 226 skilled nursing facilities in Arkansas are in unsustainable financial jeopardy. In ordinary times they rely heavily on government programs, such as Medicaid to reimburse their costs for patient care.

Since last year the nursing homes have spent most of the emergency government funds they received to help them weather the pandemic, their accounts are being depleted and their unreimbursed costs continue to climb.

Without additional help, “thousands of residents and staff face a real risk of multiple closures,” the request said.

Those closures would create severe disruption in access to health care, with reduced availability of nursing care for families and individuals. Local economies would suffer, especially in rural areas.

“The human impact will be considerable,” the DHS request said.

Nursing homes must comply with detailed government regulations, which have changed frequently since last year as medical officials learned more about the pandemic and how it spreads. To meet the specific and complex requirements of regulators, nursing homes have added staff while maintaining nursing services.

Hospitals also have seen increased costs due to the pandemic. They’ve bought protective equipment and additional medical equipment. They are constantly testing staff, patients and the general public. They have partitioned and updated rooms to meet the growing demand for beds for Covid patients.

According to the Human Services Department request for ARP funding, the factor limiting hospitals ability to respond to the health emergency is a lack of frontline staff. In recruiting available nurses and medical staff, Arkansas hospitals must compete with other states where hospitals pay higher salaries.

Hospitals propose to spend the ARP funding recruiting additional staff and retaining their existing staff, the department said in its funding request.

The funds will be disbursed to hospitals and nursing homes according to formulas that take into account how many beds they have and how many people they have on staff already.

Hospitals that don’t accept Medicaid or Medicare will not receive any of the emergency funding.

August 6, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – Legislators gathered at the Capitol in Little Rock to affirm the governor’s declaration of a public health emergency for 60 days.

The governor declared the first emergency due to the Covid-19 pandemic last year, on March 11, 2020. He renewed it several times and it finally expired on May 30, 2021.

Earlier this year, in the regular session of the General Assembly, lawmakers approved Act 403 to grant the legislature veto power over the governor’s emergency declarations.

Act 403 gives the legislature the power to terminate a state of disaster emergency. The Senate and House must meet within eight days of the governor’s declaration.

The governor issued a declaration of a public health emergency on Thursday, July 29, and both chambers of the legislature affirmed it on Tuesday, August 3.

The legislature then met in special session to clarify that the state Department of Workforce Services may choose not to participate in a federal program that awards supplemental unemployment benefits.

The federal program was awarding unemployed workers an additional $300 a week. Business leaders and legislators have said that the added benefits encouraged people to stay home and not seek work, at a time when some businesses are having trouble finding enough staff.

The main topic of the special session was whether to amend Act 1002 of 2021, which was approved by the legislature earlier this year. It prohibits schools from requiring that students and staff wear masks.

Allowing schools to require masks was the first item on the governor’s call for a special session.

Members of the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor heard numerous conflicting statements on the effectiveness of masks, and whether school boards should be able to pre-empt parental authority on health decisions that affect children.

The committee defeated bills that would authorize school boards to impose mask mandates.

Adding urgency to the debate was the fact that Arkansas is being hit with the Delta Variant of the Covid-19 virus. Children appear to be more susceptible to this year’s Delta Variant than they were to the original Covid-19 virus last year.

According to the state Health Department and the governor, the rapid rise in cases of the Delta Variant is causing an unsustainable strain on Arkansas hospitals. Declaration of a public health emergency allows Arkansas officials to recruit additional hospital staff from other states, under an interstate compact.

Also, the Health Department is ordered to identify any regulatory statutes that hinder the licensing of health care professionals. They will be suspended during the 60 days of the emergency.

Revenue Report

July’s state revenue report must be viewed from a different perspective than usual. Revenue in July of 2021 was well below revenue in July of 2020, but that does not reflect a downturn in the state economy.

Rather, the decrease of almost 22 percent happened because last year the state and the federal government moved the tax filing deadlines from April 15 to July 15 due to the pandemic.

State revenue officials anticipated the decline and budgeted for it, so even though revenue was below last year’s levels it was 9.4 percent more than forecast.

July 30, 2021

LITTLE ROCK –Every day in Arkansas first responders save the lives of 11 people from an overdose of painkillers.

Thanks to legislation enacted earlier this year, even more people can be revived from potentially fatal overdoses of opioids. Act 651 of 2021 mandates that when a physician prescribes opioids, the physician must also prescribe naloxone, a drug that can quickly reverse the effects of an overdose.

Under Act 651, physicians must provide counseling on how to safely and effectively use the opioid and the naloxone.

So far this year, more than 1,000 people in Arkansas have been saved by first responders using naloxone. It is commonly called by its brand name, Narcan.

The legislature has enacted several laws to save people from the epidemic of opioid overdoses. Act 284 of 2017 authorizes pharmacists to dispense naloxone to friends and family of someone who is at risk of dying from an overdose.

In 2015 the legislature passed Act 1114 to provide immunity from arrest for friends of a person who is about to die from an overdose, if they take him to a hospital or contact law enforcement to seek medical assistance.

Also in 2015 the legislature approved Act 1222 to grant civil immunity to emergency medical technicians and first responders who in good faith administer naloxone to someone at risk of an opioid overdose.

The legislature also created the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which helps prevent abuse by allowing authorities to track individuals who get inordinate amounts of additive drugs.

Opioids are prescribed for moderate to severe pain, but one of their side effects is that they are addictive. According to the Centers for Disease Control, common types of opioids are oxycodone, hydrocodone, methadone and morphine.

Heroin is an illegal opioid. Fentanyl is an even stronger opioid than heroin. It is a synthetic version that is being manufactured illegally and sold in underground drug markets.

Earlier this year the state Crime Lab reported that for the first time more people in Arkansas had died from an overdose of fentanyl than from methamphetamine. The state Drug Director said that illegal shipments of fentanyl from Mexico and China were the main cause of the increase in fentanyl overdoses.

Arkansas is second in the nation in the rate of opioid prescriptions – an average of 86.3 prescriptions for every 100 people, compared to the national average of 46.7 opioid prescriptions for every 100 people.

The state attorney general recently announced a possible settlement of a lawsuit by numerous states, cities and counties against drug companies. If approved by the government entities, the drug companies will pay a total of $26 billion nationwide to settle the thousands of lawsuits brought against them. Arkansas would receive $216 million, to be spent mainly for treatment and prevention of opioid abuse.

The drug companies have agreed to work under a system that will track purchases of opioids, to prevent suspiciously large shipments. Information about drug shipments will be shared with state regulators.

Before the lawsuits, drug companies distributed millions of pills to small, rural communities. Also, drug manufacturers did not inform physicians about how addictive opioids really are.

July 23, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – This year computer and electronic equipment will be included in the Arkansas sales tax holiday.

Every year the sales tax holiday is the first weekend in August. This year it will be Saturday, August 7, and Sunday, August 8.

Consumers will not have to pay sales tax on any articles of clothing that cost less than $100. The exempted items include not only ordinary clothing such as pants, shirts, dresses and shoes. Also free from sales tax are bathing suits, baby blankets, underwear, raincoats, uniforms, hats and caps, aprons, neckties, scarves and steel-toes boots.

Diapers, even disposal diapers, are included on the list of exempt items.

Accessories are also on the list of exempted items, as long as they cost less than $50. The list of articles is extensive, and includes handbags and purses, sunglasses, jewelry, hair notions, wallets, watches and wigs.

More than 65 categories of cosmetics are exempt from the sales tax, such as mascara, many types of hair products, fingernail polish and fingernail remover, bath salts, artificial eyelashes, perfume and stretch mark cream.

School supplies will be exempt from the sales tax. Officially the first weekend of August is called the sales tax holiday, but many people refer to it as the “Back to School” sales tax holiday. That’s because the legislature intentionally scheduled it for early August, to benefit families with children going to school.

School supplies include pens, pencils and paper as well as art supplies.

Thanks to Act 944 of 2021, approved by the legislature earlier this year, certain electronic and computer equipment was added to the list of tax exempt items.

Laptops, desktops, tablets, printers, keyboards, calculators, cell phones, e-readers and monitors are exempt from the sales tax.  However, video games, stereos and televisions are not included.

Arkansas families will save an estimated $2.6 million on purchases of electronic and computer equipment.

The sales tax exemption applies to single articles, and is not based on the overall cost of everything you buy. For example, you can buy three shirts $25 each and a pair of pants for $50 and you will not be charged the sales tax, even though the total is $125. Because each item is less than $100, the exemption is applied.

However, if you buy a pair of shoes for $120, you will have to pay the sales tax on the full amount of the purchase.

Essentially, there is no limit on the number of exempt items you can purchase, as long as each item costs less than $100 for clothes or $50 for accessories.

There is no price limit on electronics and computer equipment, nor is there one on school supplies.

The exemption applies to all sales taxes, not just state sales taxes. That means exempt items are free of all city, county and local sales taxes.

All retailers have to participate. Articles cannot be separated in order to lower their price under the $100 and $50 thresholds. Men’s suits and pairs of shoes, which normally are sold as one unit, cannot be split into separate purchases.

July 16, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – In the regular session of 2021 the legislature approved at least 25 new election laws that will go into effect on July 28.

Some of the new laws will affect poll workers, county election commissioners and county clerks’ office.

Others will affect voters the next time they cast a ballot. For example, Act 249 of 2021 tightens the current photo ID requirement. It eliminates the option that allowed voters to have their ballot counted, even though they did not bring a photo ID to the polling place, if they filled out a sworn statement that they were registered to vote.

Under Act 249, if they cannot present a photo ID they must cast a provisional ballot and it will not be counted unless they appear in person and present an ID to the county clerk, or the county board of election commissioners, by noon on the Monday following the election.

Act 728 of 2021 restricts loitering within 100 feet outside the main entrance to a polling site. You can stand in line if you are waiting to vote, but you cannot stay within 100 feet unless you intend to go inside and vote, or if you have a lawful purpose.

Act 736 of 2021 changes the law on absentee ballots. Under the act, if someone has five or more absentee ballots in their possession, it will be presumed that the person intends to commit voter fraud. Previously, a person could possess 10 absentee ballots without triggering a presumption of fraud. The law exempts mail carriers, people who deliver for commercial carriers and administrators of residential care facilities.

Under Act 736 county clerks may make absentee ballot applications readily available online, or in paper form, but they may not send them unsolicited to voters.

County clerks must maintain a daily count of absentee ballot applications received, and report the totals to the county board of election commissioners weekly. Voters must use their residential address when applying for an absentee ballot. If an absentee ballot fails to declare the voter’s residential address, it will not be counted.

Act 973 of 2021 moves up the deadline for delivering an absentee ballot in person to the county clerk’s office, from the regular close of business on the Monday before election day to the regular close of business on the previous Friday.

Act 756 of 2021 broadens the jurisdiction of the state Board of Election Commissioners, for example it authorizes the board to “institute corrective actions” in response to a complaint about voting procedures. It allows the board to use local law enforcement officers to enforce subpoenas of public records being withheld.

Act 1022 of 2021 requires county boards of election commissioners to create reports on the total number of provisional ballots, absentee ballots and in-person ballots cast in early voting and on election day. The reports must include the number of ballots rejected, and the reasons for rejecting them.

Act 974 of 2021 requires the state Attorney General to set up a hotline for complaints about violations of election law. Complaints will be sent to the legislative Joint Performance Review Committee, and to local prosecutors if necessary. The legislative committee may investigate allegations.

Act 974 also empowers the state board to decertify county election officials. The state board take over the conducting of elections in the county if it discovers severe violations that threaten free, fair and impartial elections in that county.

July 9, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The state Department of Human Services has installed a new system for filling out applications for social services.

It is designed to be more user friendly, both for people applying for services and for staff at DHS county offices.

DHS officials told legislators on the Senate and House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committees that the new system should hold down costs, and make it easier for applicants to find the benefits for which they are eligible.

For example, in filling out the application digitally, they can click a button that refers them to services for veterans. They can also access other resources such as child care, transportation and housing.

Previously, an applicant for social services could fill out as many as eight applications. The new system eliminates the need for separate applications. Also, one application is good for an entire household.

Lawmakers specifically asked if the new system was linked to agencies that could help applicants find a job or sign up for adult education classes. There is a link to those resources, DHS officials told the legislative committee.

All the department’s medical services, including Medicaid, have been set up in the new system since April. Just last week the system began a pilot project in five Arkansas counties to take applications for food stamps and welfare. The five counties represent six percent of the department’s total caseload. They are Carroll, Hot Spring, Independence, Lafayette and Pope Counties.

In November, DHS county offices in about half the state will install the system. They’re roughly in southern and eastern Arkansas. In December the remaining half of the state, in eastern and northern Arkansas, will get the new system.

The technology will allow applications 24 hours a day, on numerous types of devices. People who wish to can still visit a county office in person to fill out a paper application, and they can still telephone their county office.

DHS officials hope the new system will cut down on the number of in-person visits and phone calls to county offices. Staff will no longer have to enter as much data manually. Applicants will be able to download documents digitally, which will eliminate the need to mail documents or bring them in person to a county office and wait in line.

It is the Arkansas Integrated Eligibility System, and officials are calling it ARIES for short. A DHS official told legislators that it would make a “huge” difference in how people apply for Medicaid, food stamps, welfare and other services. Also, the state will have more accurate and timely access to demographic data about social programs, she said.

ARIES will provide translations into Spanish and Marshallese. The language of the English original has been simplified, compared to previous application forms. It is written to be understandable at the fifth to seventh grade level.

One legislator thanked the DHS officials for staying within their budget when they installed ARIES. That doesn’t always occur when state agencies implement new information technology, he said.

The department spent $111.1 million in Fiscal Year 2020 on ARIES, and $88.3 million in Fiscal Year 2021. During Fiscal Year 2022, which started on July 1, the department estimates it will spend $68.3 million on the system.

July 2, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The state Board of Education has approved another round of plans submitted by Arkansas school districts that want the option of offering online classes in the fall.

At a special meeting, the Board approved 60 applications from school districts and charter schools.

The Board is prepared to decide on up to 50 additional applications before school resumes. Counting decisions made at previous meetings, the Board so far has approved about 90 applications by school districts.

Applications to offer virtual classes are usually accompanied by a request for a waiver from traditional education standards.

Waivers exempt the schools from regulations that limit maximum class sizes and the number of students assigned to an individual teacher. Also, the Board can grant waivers that reduce the total number of hours a student must spend in a particular course.

Board members had questions about plans by some districts to have teachers conducting online classes while also teaching students in the classroom. In response, representatives of those districts said that fewer students are expected to take online classes this year.

Also, teachers will have more training in online education this year, compared to last year when the Covid-19 pandemic caused so much disruption in schools.

Some school districts plan to sign contracts with private vendors that specialize in online classes.

So far, the Board has approved all the plans submitted by local school districts. Many virtual courses will be recorded, rather than live, so that students can take the online classes at any time of the day.

Last school year the Covid-19 pandemic disrupted everyone involved in education, from administrators and teachers to students and parents. Support staff in the cafeteria and bus drivers were affected, as were cleaning staff who had to sanitize classrooms more frequently.

Revised Forecast

June 30 was the final day of the state’s 2021 fiscal year. The governor and budget officials revised the official forecast upward, to reflect better than anticipated revenue over the past 12 months. The forecast was raised by about $212 million for the fiscal year.

Tax collections are an accurate barometer of the state’s economic economy because tax rates have not gone up. Increases in state revenue mean that business activity has grown and more people are working.

Federal stimulus payments to individuals and businesses were a factor that recovery of the Arkansas economy.

Under the new forecast, state general revenue for Fiscal Year 2021 will be about $5.89 billion.

The governor announced that the revised forecast means that an additional $86.6 million will be transferred into the state’s Medicaid trust fund. That increases the fund to more than $600 million, and bolsters Medicaid’s ability to reimburse medical providers who care for the elderly, people with disabilities and patients from low-income families.

The revised revenue forecast also means that the state’s long term reserve fund will be about $1.2 billion. Budget officials think the reserve fund is enough to improve the state’s bond ratings.

Some education institutions can carry forward unspent money from one fiscal year to the next. The revised forecast means that they will have about $101 million for Fiscal Year 2022.

June 25, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – As the Arkansas tourism industry recovers from the economic impacts of the pandemic, the governor announced the creation of a new Office of Outdoor Recreation.

It will be in the state Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, and over the summer the department will hire a director for the office to coordinate and promote stewardship of the outdoors in Arkansas.

A 10-member advisory board will oversee the office. Members include private sector representatives. For example, the first four members represent a resort on Lake Ouachita, an outfitter on the Buffalo River, a boat manufacturer in Monticello and a duck hunting lodge in Arkansas County.

Traditionally, the Arkansas tourism industry has relied heavily on outdoor recreational activities such as camping, boating, hiking, hunting and fishing. That led to the designation of the state motto as the “Natural State.”

In recent years the state’s marketing efforts have promoted alternative activities and destinations, in order to expand and diversify the industry’s appeal. Marketing campaigns have targeted birdwatchers, motorcycle clubs and Civil War enthusiasts.

Other campaigns promote music festivals for fans of blues and bluegrass. Others have been aimed at connoisseurs of art and fine dining, to make tourists aware of the art galleries and restaurants in Arkansas.

Recent marketing campaigns also focus on specific destinations such as race tracks, casinos, water parks and the presidential library in Little Rock.

Therefore, creating a new Office of Outdoor Recreation is “getting back to the basics” in Arkansas tourism promotion.

According to the governor’s office, outdoor recreation accounts for almost $10 billion in the Arkansas economy. It supports 96,000 jobs and generates $698 million a year in local and state tax revenue.

The tourism and hospitality industry was especially hard hit by the pandemic, because of public health restrictions that limited seating at restaurants and prohibited public gatherings like music concerts. That’s why last year the state awarded $48 million in grants specifically to hospitality businesses that were negatively affected by health restrictions.

They were call Business Interruption Grants and they went to more than 2,100 business. They were awarded by the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism, the Arkansas Economic Commission and the Department of Finance and Administration.

News of the Office of Outdoor Recreation coincided with the announcement that the state had acquired Blue Mountain, a 459-acre parcel in central Arkansas. Also, the state signed an agreement with the U.S. Forest Service to allow more amenities for visitors at the Lake Sylvia Recreation Area, also in central Arkansas.

Blue Mountain is near Pinnacle Mountain, already within a state park. Rattlesnake Ridge was designated as a natural area in 2018 and in spite of its name is seeing an increase in visitors.

The Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission and The Nature Conservancy bought Blue Mountain for about $5 million from a timber company.

The Nature Conservancy raised about $1 million of the purchase price and has plans to raise an additional $1 million for building trails and a parking lot, and to help with maintenance.

June 18, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – State Medicaid officials are asking the federal government for approval of ARHOME, the newest version of Medicaid expansion.

They anticipate a decision in November or December. ARHOME will replace the current version of Medicaid expansion called Arkansas Works, which expires December 31.

ARHOME stands for Arkansas Health and Opportunity for Me. It was created by Act 530, which the legislature enacted earlier this year during the regular session.

Medicaid expansion is a government health program for about 250,000 Arkansans, although there was an increase to about 274,000 people last year due to the economic impact of the pandemic.

The Arkansas version of Medicaid expansion is different from that in other states, because the Arkansas version relies on private insurance companies to provide the bulk of the coverage.

Typically, 84 percent of the people enrolled in Medicaid expansion are in private insurance plans. The remaining 16 percent have more extensive medical needs and are covered in the more traditional Medicaid program.

When Congress enacted the national Affordable Care Act in 2010, the states had the option of creating their own versions of Medicaid expansion to cover more people. Traditionally, Medicaid was for low-income families and the Affordable Care Act made more people eligible by raising the income thresholds.

Arkansas created its unique version of Medicaid expansion in 2013. Now, it’s common for public health officials and legislators to distinguish between “traditional Medicaid” and “Medicaid expansion.”

Under Medicaid expansion the state helps individuals pay for private health insurance. The traditional Medicaid program uses a “fee for service” model, which means that enrollees visit their doctors, who then file a claim with the state for reimbursement.

In the last quarter of 2020 Medicaid paid for health care for 912,738 Arkansans. Of those, 380,364 were children and 129,399 were people with disabilities, 52,664 were senior citizens and 76,309 were adults in the traditional Medicaid program. The remaining 274,002 were people in Arkansas Works, the Medicaid expansion program created in 2013.

State officials need approval from the federal government for changes in Medicaid because the federal government provides the vast majority of the funding. For example, the federal government funds 90 percent of Medicaid expansion and the state funds 10 percent. For traditional Medicaid, the federal government pays about 77 percent of Medicaid costs, although that percentage fluctuates from year to year.

The federal match is expected to drop closer to 70 percent when the pandemic is past and current public health emergency declarations are called off.

The federal Medicaid matching rate depends on the per capita income in each state, so relatively prosperous states pay a higher percentage. Federal funds pay for 44 percent in New Jersey and New York.

The health care community in Arkansas reported significant health and financial benefits from Medicaid expansion in 2013. The number of people without health insurance went down from about 27 percent to about 15 percent between 2013 and 2015, according to surveys conducted by hospitals and health insurance providers.

When more people are insured and see a physician regularly, it results in fewer visits to emergency rooms.

June 11, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – Public health experts now say that children as young as 12 can safely be vaccinated against the Covid-19 coronavirus.

The governor and state officials are urging parents to get their children vaccinated, because after they are fully vaccinated they will not have to be quarantined if they are exposed to someone with Covid-19.

Vaccinating more children will minimize disruptions to their schooling. Also, it will indirectly boost the Arkansas economy because parents won’t have to stay home with a child who is in quarantine.

Arkansas has begun offering incentives to people to take the vaccinations. In late May, the state began offering people a $20 scratch off lottery ticket, and $21 gift certificates toward a hunting or fishing license with the Game and Fish Commission.

Additional incentives may become available, depending on the demand. Initially, the state will offer 50,000 scratch off lottery tickets and 50,000 gift certificates for hunting and fishing licenses.

A person who received two doses of the Pfizer shots is considered fully vaccinated two weeks after getting the second shot.

Children 12 and older can now receive the Pfizer shots, under federal Food and Drug Administration guidelines, but vaccinations from Moderna and Johnson and Johnson are only allowed for people 18 and older. You have to have two Moderna shots, but the complete Johnson and Johnson vaccination is in one shot.

When vaccines first became available there were not enough for everyone. For that reason they were administered first to people in high priority groups, such as senior citizens and people with medical conditions that made them especially vulnerable to the virus.

However, Arkansas is now among the numerous states that now have an excess of vaccines. Public health officials are concerned that vaccines will reach their expiration date before they are administered. The governor has talked to federal officials about possibly sending unused vaccines to other nations where supplies are lacking.

About 32 percent of the state’s population is fully vaccinated, compared to almost 52 percent nationwide. Last week the federal Centers for Disease Control (CDC) ranked Arkansas ahead of only Mississippi and Alabama in the percentage of people who are fully vaccinated.

Information about getting vaccinated is available at the state Health Department’s web site, at this Internet address: https://www.healthy.arkansas.gov/

New Air Force Mission

The state will commit $17 million to extending a runway at the Ebbing Air National Guard Base in Fort Smith.

The Air Force announced it would locate a new training center for pilots who fly F-35 Lightning II and F-16 Fighting Falcon jets.

Arkansas won out over proposals from military bases in Texas, Indiana, Colorado and Michigan.

The Air Force said that the new training center could house 36 fighter aircraft, with 345 U.S. military personnel and 180 members of a training unit from Singapore, and their families.

Ebbing is home of the 188th Wing of the Arkansas Air National Guard.

The governor cited recent legislation that makes Arkansas a good host for military projects, such as tax exemptions for military retirement incomes and streamlining of occupational licenses for military personnel who move to Arkansas from other states.

At a conference in Fort Smith, the governor said that Arkansas was well positioned to grow its aerospace and defense industries.

At the same conference, the Secretary of Commerce said that aerospace and defense industries are a major part of the Arkansas economy, and account for almost $800 million in exports.

More than 10,000 Arkansans work in the aerospace and defense sector. There are 180 Arkansas companies in the aerospace or defense sectors, and their total economic impact is about $2 billion to the state economy.

According to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the top export produced in Arkansas are aircraft and aircraft-related parts and services.

The Commerce Secretary credited Arkansas workers for their skills in manufacturing, and noted that jobs in aerospace and defense pay well compared to jobs in other industries.

Numerous Arkansas colleges and universities offer degrees and certificate in aerospace-related programs, and Arkansas leads the South in the variety and number of degrees offered. Five campuses offer a certification in Aviation Maintenance Technology.

A closely related field is cyber-security. According to the AEDC, 21 institutions offer classes or degrees in cybersecurity.

Every year, higher education institutions in Arkansas award about 2,100 students a degree or certificate in engineering or a related field.

Moving Battlefield Artifacts

Artifacts from Prairie Grove Battlefield State Park are being moved to Jacksonport State Park, because the Prairie Grove park doesn’t have the right type of facility for storing them and preserving them.

The artifacts include weapons, artillery shells, uniforms, saddles and furniture. Many are fragile. The change in location may upset neighbors of the battlefield park because many pieces were donated by local families.

Also, they are good visual exhibits for park interpreters when teaching about the battle of Prairie Grove, which occurred on December 7, 1862.

Union forces won the day, enabling them to control northwest Arkansas and Missouri for the remainder of the Civil War.

The Jacksonport park is near Newport. It was a thriving port at the confluence of the White River and the Black River, and like Prairie Grove it is the location of a Civil War conflict.

June 4, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The state is on pace to have a record surplus of more than $1 billion, which is a strong indicator that the Arkansas economy is recovering from the negative effects of the pandemic.

The monthly revenue report for May shows that all categories of state taxes improved significantly over the same period last year.

With one more month remaining in the state’s fiscal year, the surplus is a record $980 million. The enormous surplus is attributable to several factors: a rebound in business activity in Arkansas and conservative budgeting by the legislature.

Also, federal relief funding helped Arkansas families maintain household spending levels, and helped Arkansas companies remain in business. More people went back to work.

At the height of the pandemic last year, the legislature and the governor reduced spending by state agencies.

The size of the surplus is impressive when compared to the overall size of the state’s general revenue fund. In the 2021 regular session, which ended in late April, the legislature approved a budget for state government that calls for spending $5.8 billion in Fiscal 2022, which will begin on July 1.

The record surplus will be a strong argument for legislators who want to reduce state income taxes. The governor has announced that he intends to call a special session in the fall to lower the top state income tax rate.

Medical Marijuana Tax Funds for Cancer Institute

During the 2021 regular session, the legislature voted to continue providing funds to the state’s medical school from a privilege tax on medical marijuana.

The tax had been scheduled to expire on July 1, but Act 434 of 2021 extends the sunset date for another two years, to July 1, 2023.

The privilege tax was first enacted in 2017. It requires businesses that cultivate and dispense medical marijuana to remit 4 percent of their sales to the state. The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, the state’s major medical college in Little Rock, receives much of the revenue for the goal of achieving a National Cancer Institute (NCI) designation for its Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute.

Act 434 will generate $13.3 million next fiscal year. Of that amount, $12.4 million will be deposited to the UAMS National Cancer Designation Trust Fund.

There are 71 NCI centers in the country. The closest to Arkansas are in Memphis, Oklahoma City and Dallas.

The National Cancer Institute awards 68 percent of its grants to centers with the NCI designation, which means that UAMS and other facilities without the designation are left to compete for only 32 percent of the funding left available. For many research grants, only NCI centers are eligible.

The Rockefeller Institute also is raising money from private donations for getting its NCI designation.

The total operating budget for UAMS this year is $1.6 billion. That is projected to increase by 10 percent, or $174 million, by next year.

The hospital at UAMS expects the volume of clinical visits and surgeries to return to levels it had before the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Board of Trustees for the University of Arkansas System met recently, and the medical school did not request any tuition increases for next year.

May 28, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – State and local governments are preparing to receive a large infusion of federal aid, under the American Rescue Plan of 2021. Schools and universities in Arkansas also are receiving federal funds.

The amount of federal funding is unprecedented. State government will get $1.57 billion. The 75 counties in Arkansas will get $586 million. Arkansas cities will get about $425 million. Each city’s allocation will depend on its population. Arkansas schools are set to receive $1.25 billion. Universities and colleges will receive $363 million.

The virus has caused the deaths of almost 6,000 people in Arkansas. Almost 36,000 have contracted the virus and more than 16,000 have been hospitalized. More than 1,600 have had to be on a ventilator.

Medical bills can devastate a family’s finances. Even in households that stayed healthy, the loss of employment was a financial blow. Especially hard hit were the travel, hospitality and tourism industries.

Government entities can use ARP funds to recover from the loss of revenue caused by the pandemic. Their budgets were strained by increased demand for social services. Also, ARP funds can be spent to improve health in communities that suffered the brunt of the pandemic’s impact.

The funds can be spent to prepare for possible future pandemics, such as purchasing medical supplies and equipment, or training more people in health professions.

The funds can be spent on necessary improvements to water, sewer and broadband infrastructure. The federal money cannot be used to pay for tax cuts, and cannot be deposited in public pension systems.

The governor has appointed a 15-member steering committee to identify the most pressing needs in Arkansas, and to recommend how funds from the ARP can most efficiently be spent. The members are nine cabinet secretaries and six legislators, three from the Senate and three from the House of Representatives.

The legislature has final approval on all spending proposals by state agencies constitutional offices. Earlier this year the legislature passed Act 997 of 2021 to establish the process for submitting and getting approval of funding requests, in anticipation of the large amount of federal funding that would flow into Arkansas from the American Rescue Plan.

New District Boundaries

The Board of Apportionment held its first meeting, to plan for drawing new boundaries for the state’s four Congressional Districts. Later this year, when the U.S. Census Bureau has new numbers on population growth in Arkansas, the board will redraw the boundaries of the 35 state Senate districts and the 100 districts in the House. The population of each new district will be roughly the same.

The Board of Apportionment has three members – the governor, the attorney general and the secretary of state. The Census Bureau provides new data every 10 years.

In 2010, state Senate districts had vastly different populations because of unequal growth over the previous decade.

In fast-growing northwest Arkansas a Senate district had more than 116,000 residents, while a rural area of southeast Arkansas had a district with fewer than 64,000 residents.

However, after redistricting by the Board of Apportionment, all 35 state Senate districts were close to 83,311 in population. Since 2010 similar population trends have occurred, and the Board will again equalize the population of legislative districts.

May 21, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The state is now offering help to low-income families who have fallen behind on their rent because of financial problems caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The Arkansas Rental Relief Program is run by the state Human Services Department, which will distribute about $173 million in federal funds to renters and landlords.

The financial help can be used for paying past due rent, or for future rent payments. It can also help pay for utilities such as water bills, light bills and gas bills, but not for Internet and telephone bills.

People who qualify can use the assistance for up to 15 months of rent and utilities incurred between April 1, 2020 and December 31, 2021.

Renters can get rental assistance if someone in the household qualifies for unemployment benefits, or if the household income decreased during the pandemic or someone in the home went through significant financial hardship due to the pandemic.

Also, a family qualifies if its income is under a certain threshold, which depends on the average income of the county in which they live and the number of people in the household.

To learn more and to apply for help, search on the Internet for ar.gov/rentrelief. Also, you can call 855-RENTARK between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. Monday through Friday. On Saturday and Sunday the phone lines are open from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Not only can you pay past due rent through the program, you can use funding to pay up to 5 percent of late fees incurred after April 1, 2020.

You will need to provide an ID, such as a driver’s license, and proof that you are renting, such as a lease or rental contract. That agreement should include the landlord’s phone number and email address.

If you have received an eviction notice or a past due notice, you can qualify because your family is at risk of being homeless or going through “housing instability.”

Also, you will need to show proof that you went through financial hardship because of the pandemic. Finally, you need to show proof of income for everyone in your house who files tax returns. Your landlord must cooperate by applying along with you.

Virtual Learning

The Arkansas Charter Authorizing Panel has recommended changes in charter school language that will guide charter schools next year if they want to enroll more students in virtual learning.

Charters will have a more definite idea of maximum class sizes, how many students can be assigned to an individual teacher, minimum hours of instruction that are offered in a day and lesson planning.

For the current school year, officials at the state and local levels improvised in order to implement new rules governing virtual classrooms.

The changes recommended by the Charter Authorizing Panel will allow officials to better plan for whatever virtual classes that may be in demand in the 2021-2022 school year.

The changes endorsed by the Charter Panel will be considered by the state Board of Education at its June meeting. One member of the state Board, while discussing the plans endorsed by the Charter Panel, compared last year’s improvisations as “the wild, wild west.”

May 14, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas legislature enacted several new pro-life laws during the 2021 regular session.

One of the first bills approved was Act 309, which prohibits abortions except in cases when it’s necessary to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency.

The act does not authorize the filing of any criminal charges against the mother. However, the person who performs the abortion could be charged with a felony and fined $100,000.

If a physician is providing medical treatment to a pregnant woman and accidentally or unintentionally harms the unborn baby, the physician has an affirmative defense.

Act 309 does not prohibit the sale or use of contraceptive drugs and chemicals, as long as they are taken before the mother could reasonably know, through conventional medical testing, that she is pregnant.

The legislature also passed Act 949, which requires abortion clinics to be licensed by the state Health Department. It also prohibits hospitals from performing an abortion unless it is to save the life of the mother in a medical emergency.

Act 90 does not allow an abortion to be performed until the mother has received information about public benefits for which she may be eligible, as well as help with application forms.

The offer of free resources will include planning for a healthy pregnancy, and help with postpartum care and prenatal care. The mother will receive information about alcohol and drug abuse treatment.

The mother is not required to complete any of the services in order to get an abortion. The Health Department will set up a toll-free telephone line for pregnant women to get the offer of free services. The Department also will set up a database. Abortion providers must register on the database each abortion request, and the registration must verify that the mother received an offer of free services.

Within two days after the abortion is performed, the provider must report to the Health Department the date and time it was performed.

The abortion provider may contract with an agency to make the offer of free services to the pregnant women. That agency must report on the number of requests for help it gets from victims of abuse, coercion or sex trafficking.

The agency also must report how many women asked for help with health pregnancy planning, and how many women asked for help paying for housing, getting a job, getting child care and putting the child up for adoption.

The reports will also include the number of requests for financial help, medical care, mental health treatment, substance abuse treatment, help writing a resume and help getting health insurance.

To confirm that abortion providers are offering free services, or hiring an agency to offer services, the Health Department will audit the providers. Abortion providers can be fined $5,000 for each procedure performed without first offering free services to the mother.

If more than five percent of the audited cases are not in compliance with the law requiring an offer of free services, the Health Department shall revoke the license of the abortion clinic.

May 7, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature referred three proposed constitutional amendments to Arkansas voters.

In next year’s statewide general election in November, voters will decide whether or not the three amendments are written into the state Constitution.

Two of the proposed amendments originated in the Senate; the third originated in the House of Representatives.

Senate Joint Resolution 10, if approved by voters next year, would allow the General Assembly to call itself into session in the interim between regular sessions. Currently, the legislature meets every year in regular session. After regular sessions have adjourned, the legislature does not convene again until the regular session of the following year.

In the interim between regular sessions, the only time the legislature convenes is when the governor calls a special session.

SJR 10 would allow legislators to call themselves into special session without a call by the governor. It could happen by two possible methods. The President Pro Tem of the Senate and the Speaker of the House could issue a joint proclamation. Or, a proclamation could be issued by legislators, if two-thirds of each body signed it.

Similar to the calls for a special session that are issued by the governor, the legislative proclamation would have to list the items that can be considered. SJR 10 would not affect the governor’s power to call a special session.

SJR 14 is the second measure that originated in the Senate. Its title is “The Arkansas Religious Freedom Amendment.”

It would provide that the government shall not burden a person’s freedom of religion, except under limited circumstances when there is a compelling government interest in doing so, and the government chooses the least restrictive method of achieving that compelling interest.

SJR 14 states that “Governments should not burden religious exercise without compelling justification,” and that in a 1990 ruling “the United States Supreme Court virtually eliminated the requirement that the government justify burdens on religious exercise imposed by laws neutral toward religion.”

The 1990 case was out of Oregon, called “Employment Division v. Smith.” The two plaintiffs were members of a Native American church and also worked at a private drug rehabilitation facility. They were fired for ingesting peyote, a hallucinogenic drug, during a church ceremony.

The plaintiffs were denied unemployment benefits and they sued, arguing that the government had infringed on their First Amendment rights to freely exercise religion.

The majority opinion upheld the state government of Oregon and was delivered by Justice Antonin Scalia.

The third proposed amendment is in House Joint Resolution 1005. If approved by voters, it would require a 60 percent majority for approval of future proposed constitutional amendments.

In Arkansas, proposed amendments are placed on the ballot in two ways. The legislature can refer them, such as it did with SJR 10, SJR 14 and HJR 1005.

Also, citizens can place proposed amendments on the ballot by gathering on petitions enough signatures of registered voters. The minimum number of valid signatures is 10 percent of the number of votes cast in the prior election for governor.

April 30, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature brought the 2021 regular session to a close with a dramatic midnight meeting to approve a Sovereignty Act, which declares new federal laws invalid if they infringe on the right to bear arms.

In the waning days of the session the governor vetoed Senate Bill 298, which was the first version of the Sovereignty Act. In his veto letter, the governor expressed concerns that the bill would jeopardize combined law enforcement actions conducted by federal agents in cooperation with local and state police officers.

The Senate voted to override the veto, but the House of Representatives did not. Instead, a new version of the Sovereignty Act was introduced – House Bill 1957.

Both the Senate and the House finalized action on HB 1957 after midnight, in the early hours of April 28. Each chamber then went in an extended recess, bringing this year’s regular session to an end.

HB 1957 allows local police officers to cooperate with federal agents on many types of law enforcement, such as arresting drug dealers. It prohibits Arkansas law enforcement from cooperating with federal agents if the federal operation’s main purpose is confiscation of firearms or any other infringement on the Second Amendment.

HB 1957 satisfied the governor’s concerns and he said he would sign it. Spokesmen for sheriffs and prosecutors said they were not opposed to the second version of the Sovereignty Act.

Two other states have passed similar sovereignty laws, and in more than a dozen states similar laws have been introduced and are working through the legislative process.

The legislative session lasted 108 days. Lawmakers filed 1,675 bills. By the end of the session 894 bills had become law, but the legislature had passed many more and had sent them to the governor.

The legislature went into extended recess and will meet again in the fall to draw new boundaries for the four Congressional districts in Arkansas. It’s a task the legislature does every 10 years, when the U.S. Census Bureau releases new population statistics.

Usually, the legislature redraws the boundaries during the regular session, but this year the Census Bureau is behind schedule and won’t have new population numbers until September.

After the legislature draws new Congressional district boundaries, we will adjourn and not convene again until next year’s fiscal session. If extraordinary circumstances call for it, the governor could call the legislature into a special session.

Under the Arkansas Constitution, the legislature cannot call itself into session. It can only meet in regular sessions or in a special session called by the governor. However, voters will have the opportunity to amend the Constitution next year and allow legislators to call themselves into session.

The proposed amendment will be on the general election ballot in November of 2022. It was referred this year by the legislature, which can refer three proposed amendments in each regular session.

Another referred amendment is titled the “Arkansas Religious Freedom Amendment.” The third referred amendment would raise the bar for citizens’ groups seeking to change the Constitution. It would require a 60 percent majority for approval of ballot measures brought by citizens’ groups wanting to change the Constitution. Currently, a simple majority of more than 50 percent is sufficient.

April 23, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – Fiscal issues took center stage during the final week of the legislative session.

Lawmakers have been working on a long list of tax cuts, which were finalized in the closing days of the 2021 session.

Legislation to expand the sales tax exemption for purchases of used motor vehicles was first introduced in January, but it took until the closing days of the session for everyone to agree on the details.

House Bill 1912 lowers the sales tax to 3.5 percent on purchases of used motor vehicles costing between $4,000 and $10,000. The first year it is completely in effect, it will save Arkansas consumers an estimated $13.1 million.

The lower tax rate will apply to used trailers and semi-trailers too. Tax officials estimate that buyers of more than 36,000 used vehicles will benefit from the lower tax rate.

Senate Bill 181 expands the number of items that will be exempted from the sales tax during the annual sales tax holiday in late August. It is often referred to as a “Back to School” tax holiday because it is meant to help families buying back to school supplies like clothes and school supplies.

SB 181 makes electronics exempt from the sales tax during the tax holiday. The exempted electronics include cell phones, calculators, computers of all sizes and varieties, printers and keyboards. The list does not include televisions, video games and music systems.

The exemption will save Arkansas families almost $2 million a year.

The legislature has enacted other tax reductions for timber companies, steel mills, schools that buy electronic instructional material, people who restore historic structures, custom printers and farmers who build impoundment and irrigation systems to preserve groundwater.

After passage of the tax reductions, legislators had a clear idea of how much funding would be available for next year’s state government budget.

Spending priorities in the Fiscal 2022 budget are in the Revenue Stabilization Act, the balanced budget law for Arkansas. SB 702, this year’s version, authorizes spending $5.9 billion in state taxes. If the economy slows and state tax revenue declines, state agency spending is reduced proportionately. Arkansas does not deficit spend.

The largest spending categories are the Public School Fund, which is about $2.25 billion, and the Medicaid program, which will spend about $1.37 billion in state general revenue. The Arkansas Medicaid program receives matching federal funds at a ratio of more than three to one. Last year the federal government provided $5.9 billion to the Arkansas Medicaid program.

The Department of Correction, which operates prison units housing more than 16,000 inmates, has a budget next year of $375 million. The Department of Community Corrections, which operates work release programs, drug courts and supervises inmates out on parole, will have a budget of $97 million.

The Health Department will get $80 million in state funds and the State Police $70.5 million. The division of Children and Family Services will get $120 million. It operates foster care and adoption services and investigates allegations of abuse and neglect of children.

State-supported universities will receive $612 million and two-year colleges will receive $118 million. Five technical colleges will share $32 million.

April 16, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature has enacted numerous reforms to Arkansas election laws.

The Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs reviews all proposed legislation that address elections. So far this session, the committee has received 49 bills specifically affecting polling places, absentee ballots, voter fraud and the handling of elections.

A significant example is Senate Bill 644, which has already been approved by the Senate and is being considered by the House.

It creates a toll-free hotline to the state Attorney General’s office to receive complaints of any violations of election law. To knowingly file a false claim would be a Class A misdemeanor.

Within 45 days of an election, the Attorney General shall report all complaints to the legislature’s Joint Performance Review Committee (JPR). SB 644 would empower JPR to investigate allegations of election fraud.

JPR could schedule hearings to investigate allegations of election law. SB 644 empowers the committee to swear in witnesses and subpoena them to require their appearance. It could also subpoena records and documents.

The JPR committee may then refer the allegations to the state Board of Election Commissioners. The referral shall include testimony from the legislative hearings and a recommendation of possible penalties.

The recommended penalties include a letter of reprimand to a county clerk or other local election official. Also, the election official could be decertified during the next election cycle or runoff.

If legislators on JPR believe that violations are so severe that they threaten a county’s ability to conduct a free, fair and impartial election, then the committee could recommend that the state Board take over the election process in that county.

The state Board of Election Commissioners could be reimbursed for running the local election. The state could withhold enough money from the county’s turnback funds to pay for election costs.

SB 644 authorizes similar steps to address voter registration violations. If the state Board finds a violation of voter registration laws, it may issue a letter of reprimand or impose a fine of up to $1,000 against the local election official and have the official decertified.

In related news, the Senate approved HB 1715 to require county clerks to provide the county board of election commissioners with a daily count of absentee ballot applications.

HB 1715 directs county clerks to compare signatures on applications for absentee ballots with signatures on the applicant’s voter registration document. If the signatures don’t match, the clerk will not send an absentee ballot to the applicant.

Both the Senate and House have passed HB 1803 to authorize the state Board of Election Commissioners to take corrective action when it uncovers violations of election laws.

The Senate also passed SB 620 to restrict electioneering at polling places and SB 498, which changes the course of action when someone files an election law complaint to a county board of election commissioners. Instead of forwarding the complaint to the county clerk and prosecuting attorney, the county board shall send it to the state Board of Election Commissioners.

The Committee on State Agencies endorsed HB 1517 to set up online voter registration. However, it failed on the first vote in the Senate. It received 18 votes but needed 24 for approval.

April 9, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas became the first state in the nation to prohibit physicians from performing gender transition procedures on minors, either through surgery or hormone therapy.

Sponsors of the bill said that children needed protection from experimentation. They said that minors are too young to make such important decisions as choosing a sex change, which has long-term health effects that can be irreversible.

The governor vetoed the legislation, House Bill 1570, saying that it put government between physicians and young people and their parents. He also noted that some young people in Arkansas are currently undergoing a gender change and will not be allowed continued treatment.

The legislature voted to override the veto. The Senate vote was 25-to-8 and in the House it was 71-to-24.

HB 1570 is one of several bills this legislative session that affect transgender people.

Act 461 effectively prohibits transgender boys who identify as girls from competing in sports. It allows a civil action by girls who are deprived of athletic opportunities because the school allowed a boy to compete instead. In the lawsuit, the girl could seek monetary damages for any psychological, emotional or physical harm.

A similar measure, Senate Bill 450, has been approved by the Senate. It requires schools to designate their varsity sports programs for girls, boys or coed. If a boy is allowed to play a girls sports, the girl can file a lawsuit to stop it, and the school could lose its public funding.

In other news the Senate approved SB 622, a version of what is has been labelled as a “hate crimes” bill. It mandates longer prison sentences for violent offenders who target someone who is in a “recognizable and identifiable group or class who share mental, physical, biological, cultural, political, or religious beliefs or characteristics.”

Under SB 622, offenders would not be eligible for parole until they have served at least 80 percent of their original sentence if they purposely chose a victim because of the victim’s class or group.

Prosecutors would have to ask for delayed release during the initial trial. The judge or jury would determine whether the offender’s release should be delayed because of the aggravating circumstances.

According to the FBI, in 2019 there were nine crimes committed in Arkansas whose causes were related to bias. However, not all of the state’s law enforcement agencies reported to the FBI.

Also last week, the Senate approved HB 1614 to raise teacher salaries in districts where they earn less than the state average. Disparities in salaries is one of the major obstacles in recruiting and retaining good teachers in small, rural and isolated districts.

According to state education officials, the gap in salaries between the richest and the poorest school districts is more than $21,000 a year.

HB 1614 creates a special “equalization” fund that will start with about $25 million, which will be distributed to schools that now pay less than the state average teacher salary.

It’s estimated that the money will increase average teacher salaries in those districts by about $2,000 over the next two years. Last year the average teacher salary for Arkansas was $49,822.

Over the next two years, the goal of HB 1614 is to bring the average salary up to $51,822.

March 26, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature voted to extend the 2021 session until April 30, and then to recess for an extended period rather than to adjourn.

There are several reasons the legislature chose to go into extended recess, rather than adjourn sine die.

The legislature has a duty to redraw the boundaries of the state’s four Congressional districts every 10 years. That will require new population data compiled by the U.S. Census Bureau. However, the Covid-19 pandemic caused delays in counting and canvassing. Those delays pushed back until September 30 the expected date when census information becomes available.

Another reason the legislature extended its recess is that Arkansas is going to receive federal relief funds under the new American Rescue Plan Act passed by Congress. Initial estimates are that $2.8 billion will be allocated to Arkansas schools, cities, counties and state agencies.

The U.S. Treasury Department will set rules on how those funds may be spent, and those rules are not expected to be finalized before April 30.

When the legislature is in recess, the Senate and House can re-convene at the call of their leadership. If the legislature adjourns sine die it cannot. After adjournment the legislature could only re-convene if the governor called a special session, and in that event the governor also would have the power to limit the issues that could be considered.

During the extended recess, the President Pro Tem of the Senate and the House Speaker may call the legislature back into session for the purpose of completing Congressional redistricting and for distribution of federal Covid relief funds. Another allowed purpose is to consider legislation related to the Covid-19 public health emergency.

Typically, new laws take effect on the 91st day after sine die. This year is far from typical, and under a resolution passed by the legislature new laws will take effect on the 91st day after the April 30 recess.

Some bills have emergency clauses and as always they will take effect as soon as they are signed by the governor.

Fairness in Sports

Both chambers have approved and the governor signed Senate Bill 354, which prevents transgender students from participating in women’s sports. Specifically, it allows students to seek injunctive relief and monetary damages if they are deprived of the opportunity to participate in activities because their school allowed transgender students to compete on the female team.

Postponed tax deadlines

The governor announced that May 17 will be the new deadline for filing individual state income tax returns. The IRS has also made the deadline for filing federal returns May 17.

Traditionally the tax filing deadline is April 15. This year the date was postponed to help people whose medical and financial situations got worse during the pandemic.

Universities Go Back to Classroom

The Board of Trustees of the University of Arkansas passed a resolution directing its campuses to prepare for in-person classes and activities in the fall. The system oversees five universities, seven colleges and the state’s major medical school in Little Rock, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Arkansas State University at Jonesboro has also decided to return to normal classes in the fall, as has Arkansas Tech University in Russellville.

March 19, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The Senate has approved legislation to grant to certified nurse practitioners full and independent practice authority.

The nurses would need about three years, or 6,240 hours, of practice under a collaborative agreement with a physician in order to earn the right to practice independently.

Nurses with fully independent practice authority will then have their licenses renewed every three years. They will be able to receive and prescribe drugs, medications and therapeutic devices.

Scope of practice bills tend to be controversial and difficult to pass. However, months of negotiations went into the writing of the legislation, House Bill 1258. It passed the Senate and House with clear majorities and was sent to the governor.

The Senate passed another scope of practice bill, but by the bare minimum. HB 1198 changes the definition of “certified registered nurse anesthesia.” Those nurses would no longer practice “under the supervision” of a physician. Instead, under HB 1198 they would work “in consultation with” a physician.”

Supporters of HB 1198 say it will help hospitals in rural areas that have trouble recruiting surgeons willing to supervise and be responsible for the work of nurse anesthetists.

The Senate passed the bill by a vote of 18-to-12. In the 35-member Senate, 18 is the minimum number of votes needed to pass a bill.

HB 1198 failed in the House on the first attempt, getting only 50 affirmative votes and needing at least 51. On a second try, it received 55 votes. It was sent to the governor.

Pharmacists and their technicians will be authorized to give vaccinations and immunizations, because of the passage of HB 1134 and HB 1135. Both bills have completed the legislative process and were sent to the governor.

Pharmacists will be able to dispense birth control pills without a prescription because of the passage of HB 1069, which the legislature has passed and sent to the governor. The pharmacist must notify the woman’s primary care physician of the pills being dispensed.

Also, the pharmacist must ask the woman when her most recent doctor visit took place. If it is more than six months since the most recent visit, the pharmacist shall refer her to a primary care physician or to a women’s health care provider. Also, the pharmacist could not dispense more than six months of birth control pills until the woman sees a doctor.

Only women aged 18 and older may get birth control from a pharmacist without a prescription.

Both chambers have passed a version of Senate Bill 289, which protects physicians and medical providers from punishment if they refuse to perform a procedure because it would go against their conscience.

For example, a hospital could not deny their staffing privileges, demote or terminate them. Nor would the physician be made liable in a civil suit.

However, the physician would not have the right to deny someone emergency care.

The Senate passed and sent to the House SB 309 to lower the age for colorectal cancer screenings that are covered by health insurance, from 50 to 45. Follow-up colonoscopies, if needed, would also be covered for people 45 and over.

March 12, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The Senate passed a new version of the Medicaid expansion program, which is one of the most important bills of this year’s session because of the number of people it benefits and the amount of money that it generates in Arkansas.

About 311,000 people receive services under the program. The current number is higher than usual because the Covid-19 pandemic caused many people to lose their jobs or businesses. Before the pandemic, about 250,000 people were eligible.

The original version of the Arkansas Medicaid expansion was called the private option. Rather than simply expanding traditional Medicaid rolls, Arkansas developed a unique model of implementing the federal law. Our private option helps low-income families pay for private health insurance.

It is an extension of the traditional Medicaid program, which subsidizes health care for low-income families, the elderly and people with disabilities.

When Congress passed the federal Affordable Care Act in 2010, it allowed states to expand their Medicaid programs to make people eligible if they earned up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Arkansas created the private option and in 2014 was one of 25 states to expand Medicaid.

Spending bills in Arkansas must get a supermajority of 75 percent of the legislature for approval, so creation of the private option was a battle.

Maintaining a supermajority of support for the program has continued to be a political struggle. In a special session in 2016 legislators added a work requirement, in order to win the necessary number of votes.

However, the work requirement has been struck down by federal courts, and the current administration in Washington has signaled that it does not intend to make it a part of Medicaid.

The new version is in Senate Bill 410, which the Senate passed by a vote of 26-to-3. It would create a program called ARHOME, an acronym that stands for Arkansas Health and Opportunity for Me.

It would continue the private option, which reimburses physicians and hospitals at a higher rate than traditional Medicaid. Also, the private health coverage available to beneficiaries in the private option generally offer more services.

The availability of more services will be the incentive for beneficiaries to look for work and continue their education. They can keep their private coverage if they work or study, and if they don’t they will be moved to traditional Medicaid.

Physicians, hospitals and other providers will still be paid commercial rates under ARHOME. Those are from 25 to 65 percent more than traditional Medicaid rates, and therefore ARHOME will continue to help rural hospitals stay open.

The private insurers must meet annual financial and health targets to avoid financial penalties. Three specific categories of beneficiaries will be measured for health improvement. One is at-risk pregnant women and newborns up to the age of two. The second is people in rural areas with mental illness or drug abuse problems. The third comprises young people who were incarcerated or in foster care, and veterans.

SB 410 creates a new program and the bill has no specific dollar amounts. Funding will be considered later in the legislative session when lawmakers vote on the appropriation for Medicaid. That appropriation will require 27 votes for passage in the Senate, which is 75 percent of the 35-member body.

March 5, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – Both chambers of the legislature have approved a bill that prohibits abortions, except if necessary to save the mother’s life in a medical emergency.

Several legislators said they had concerns about the bill because it does not have an exception for rape or incest.

Senate Bill 6 passed in the Senate by a 27-to-7 vote and in the House of Representatives by a 76-to-19 vote.

It authorizes penalties of up to 10 years in prison and a fine of up to $100,000 for people who are convicted or performing or attempting to perform an abortion. It specifically does not authorize any criminal charges against any pregnant woman in the death of her unborn child.

Also, SB 6 does not prohibit the sale or use of prescription drugs, contraceptive measures or chemicals as long as they are administered before the pregnancy has been determined through conventional medical testing.

In other news, the governor signed SB 24, known as the “Stand Your Ground” bill. It is Act 250 of 2021.

It removes the previous requirement in state law that people had to retreat from a confrontation if they could do so safely.

Under Act 250, a person is not required to retreat before using deadly force if he or she is legally at the location where the confrontation occurs, and has a reasonable belief that the other person is threatening his or her life with death or serious physical injury.

A group of about 35 legislators formed the “Back the Blue” caucus to support bills strengthening law enforcement. One measure in the package is SB 300 to prohibit parole for certain repeat offenders who use a firearm to commit a felony.

Another measure is HB 1343 to lower the threshold for retirement for state troopers, from 30 to 28 years of service.

Also in the package is SB 346 to add audiovisual media to the list of documentation that law enforcement agencies maintain in criminal investigations.

Other criminal investigation documents include lab reports, arrest records, search warrants and incident reports. The bill outlines how many years those documents must be retained, which depends on the severity of the crime.

SB 346 would allow law enforcement agencies to charge reasonable fees for the costs of copying audiovisual media and electronic records, for example to comply with a request for public records under the state freedom of information act.

Reasonable fees could include personnel time needed to reproduce the documents.

Some advocates for transparency in government have expressed concern that approval of SB 346 might encourage other government entities, apart from law enforcement agencies, to charge for personnel time when complying with FOI requests.

The House has passed several bills prompted by the coronavirus pandemic. HB 1488 would allow employees to file a workers’ compensation claim if they can prove they contracted the Covid-19 virus in their workplace. It would expire in two years.

The House also passed HB 1521 to provide immunity from civil lawsuits for health care providers when they diagnose and treat patients with Covid-19. Their immunity would be similar to that of emergency responders.

HB 1061, called the “No Patient Left Alone” act, would create procedures for allowing people to visit family in hospitals and nursing homes during the pandemic.

February 19, 2021
LITTLE ROCK – The deadline for legislators to file proposed constitutional amendments has passed, and the Senate and House Committees on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs will begin narrowing the list that will be placed on the next general election ballot.
In each regular session the General Assembly may refer up to three proposals to voters. A fourth proposed amendment is allowed if it affects legislative salaries.
Of the 42 proposed amendments that have been filed, many fall within the two major categories of tort reform and the ballot initiative process.
Generally, tort reform refers to efforts to limit the amount of punitive damages that may be awarded in civil lawsuits, especially in personal injury and wrongful death claims. Also, tort reform includes changes in courtroom procedures, such as rules of evidence.
Some proposed amendments, if approved by voters, would authorize the legislature to limit punitive damages in civil suits and to restrict the filing of frivolous lawsuits.
Attorneys and judges likely will oppose any attempt by legislators to limit their ability write their own rules for the courtroom. Traditionally, business groups have supported tort reform efforts in Arkansas and nationwide.
The Arkansas Constitution also allows citizens to change laws, through initiated acts, and to amend the Constitution, through amendments. Supporters gather signatures for ballot measures, and after it is verified that the signatures belong to registered voters, the proposals are placed on the ballot.
It requires more signatures to place a proposed amendment on the ballot than an initiated act.
There has been growing concern among policy makers that out-of-state special interests can abuse our ballot initiative process by paying canvassers to gather signatures and then by flooding the state with deceptive commercials.
Legislators have filed proposed amendments to prevent abuse and fraud, while still protecting the rights of citizens to change the Constitution.
One proposed amendment that will be considered in the next few weeks would require measures placed on the ballot by citizens’ groups to gain 60 percent of the votes for approval.
Another proposed amendment would allow the legislature to call itself into special session. Now, only the governor has the constitutional power to call a special session. That gives the governor’s office added influence in setting the agenda for special sessions.
During a special session, the legislature may consider only those items that the governor has included in the call for special session.
Some legislators have voiced frustration this year because they believed the legislature was excluded from important decisions about how to best respond to the Covid-19 pandemic. That frustration partly accounts for the number of proposed amendments that would shift the balance of power between the governor, the head of the executive branch, and the General Assembly, the legislative branch.
Another proposed amendment would allow lottery scholarships to be awarded to students in technical institutes and vo-tech schools. Another would provide for maintenance of libraries; another would allow voters to recall elected officials; another would change the powers of the Highway Commission. Others would affect the setting of rates and the collection of property taxes.
Other amendments would establish a fundamental right for citizens to bear arms and to exercise their religious freedom.

February 12, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – Businesses would not be penalized by state regulators for violating Covid-19 restrictions because of the behavior of their customers, under legislation passed by the Arkansas Senate.

Senate Bill 254 provides that during the public health emergency declared by the governor, businesses would not be liable for violations if they were the result of the behavior of patrons.

Also, SB 254 provides that businesses would not be penalized by state inspectors, such as officials of the Health Department or agents of the Alcoholic Beverage Control board, as long as the violation resulted from the behavior of customers.

If an ABC agent entered a restaurant and saw a customer not wearing a face mask, the agent would have to confront the customer and not the manager of the business.

The bill only governs violations of public health orders issued due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and no other health regulations. Also, the business would still be responsible for ensuring that employees follow public health directives. SB 254 passed by a vote of 32-to-1.

After a thoughtful debate, the Senate approved SB 289 to allow health care providers to refuse to perform procedures if they have objections based on conscience. They would not be civilly or criminally liable and could not lose their staff privileges or board certification. SB 289 passed by a vote of 27-to-6.

The Senate also passed SB 183, to prohibit a candidate from using campaign funds or carryover funds to pay fines for ethics violations. Under SB 183, using campaign funds to pay ethics fines would be considered the same as converting campaign funds to personal use. It passed by a vote of 31-to-2.

The penalty for racing on public highways would be more severe under SB 247, which the Senate passed by a 34-to-1 vote. A first offense would remain a class A misdemeanor but a second offense and any additional offenses would be Class D felonies.

SB 245 adds to the potential penalties for sex trafficking. If convicted offenders used a truck in committing the offense, they would be prohibited from holding a Commercial Driver’s License. That means they could not legally drive a heavy truck.

After the Senate passed the Senate bills, they were sent to the House and referred to the relevant committee. Assuming they are advanced by the committees, they then will be voted on by the entire House.

The Senate passed a House bill, HB 1202, which requires counties to publicly post sample ballots in advance of elections. The sponsor said that 55 of the 75 counties in Arkansas already do so. The Secretary of State would post the sample ballots on an Internet page that would be easy for voters to find the correct ballot for their precinct.

HB 1202 originated in the House. It has been approved by both chambers and has been sent to the governor for his signature.

The Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor has advanced SB 6, to prohibit abortions in Arkansas except to save the life of the mother. It will next be considered by the entire Senate.

February 5, 2021

LITTLE ROCK –The Senate has voted to exempt last year’s unemployment benefits from state income taxes, to help people who lost their jobs because of the economic impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Senate Bill 236 would apply to benefits paid in 2020 and 2021. The unemployment rate in Arkansas had been around four percent until the coronavirus pandemic caused widespread business closures, especially in hospitality, tourism and travel. The jobless rate spiked to around 10 percent before it began to improve.

Before the pandemic, about 44,000 people in Arkansas claimed unemployment in 2018 and 2019, a state revenue official told senators during a committee hearing on SB 236. Last year more than 281,000 people filed for unemployment, according to the Department of Workforce Services.

SB 236 will save those people more than $51 million in state income taxes when they file this year, the revenue official said.

The next step is for the bill to be considered by a House committee, and if advanced out of committee, to be voted on by the entire House.

On a voice vote, the House Judiciary Committee failed to advance a Senate bill known as the Stand Your Ground bill. It would repeal a provision in current laws that obligates you to retreat from a confrontation if you can safely do so. The bill is SB 24.

Senate and House sponsors are confident that the entire House will approve SB 24 if they can get it out of committee. The bill has already passed in the Senate, by a vote of 27-to-7.

The Senate approved HB 1195 to require pregnant women who are seeking an abortion to first call a hotline and get counseling on the availability of resources to help if she decides to keep her child. The hotline would be a toll-free number.

Sponsors say that fewer women will choose an abortion if they are fully informed about their options.

The Senate passed HB 1151 to postpone for a year the giving of letter grades to schools when the state issues school report cards. The pandemic has disrupted the ability of students to take standardized tests, which are a key factor in assigning letter grades to schools. The postponement is for the 2020-2021 school year.

The bill has passed the House and now goes to the governor.

The Senate has passed and sent to the House a bill to prohibit discrimination against people with disabilities who need an organ transplant. It is SB 155, also known as “Lila’s Law,” after a girl with Down syndrome who needed a heart transplant and was denied because of her disability.

Revenue Report

State tax revenue in January was collected at record rates. Tax rates have not gone up, therefore the increase is an indication that the Arkansas economy is rebounding from the negative impact caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The state now has a surplus of about $400 million after the first seven months of the fiscal year. During the 2021 session legislators will decide how best to use the surplus. For example, the $51 million in income tax exemptions for unemployment benefits, written into SB 236, can be absorbed by the state because of the large su

January 29, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – A Senate committee advanced legislation that protects the rights of people with disabilities who need an organ transplant.

Senate Bill 155 also is known as Lila’s Law, after a girl with Down syndrome who in 2018 was denied a potential heart transplant. The Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor gave it a favorable recommendation, which means it will be voted on by the entire Senate.

Federal law prohibits discrimination against people with disabilities, but there is a general lack of enforcement. If SB 155 is enacted, Arkansas would join 15 other states with similar laws that are meant to highlight and prevent discrimination.

SB 155 would prohibit health care providers, organ donor organizations, laboratories and other providers from discriminating against people with disabilities. They could not deny a transplant based only on the fact that the person has a disability, nor could they drop that person lower on the list of potential organ recipients.

They could not refuse to refer someone to a transplant center or refuse to put them on a waiting list. The person with a disability could not be denied insurance coverage.

However, under the bill a health care provider could still refuse to perform a transplant that is considered medically inappropriate.

SB 155 would expedite the appeals process in the event someone is denied a transplant and decides to go to court.

In other news, the House passed HB 1151 to suspend for this year a grading system to rate schools.

The impetus is that the Covid-19 virus has caused changes in scheduling, increased absenteeism and disruptions in formerly routine chores. For example, school staff must sanitize classrooms and maintain social distancing. Many more students are being taught virtually.

School report cards contain a multitude of information, such as graduation rates and student scores on standardized tests. They also include a grade letter from A to F, but under HB 1151 those letter grades would not be included for the 2020-2021 school year.

HB 1151 was sent to the Senate and referred to the Senate Education Committee.

HB 1056, to allow public entities to meet virtually during a disaster emergency declared by the governor, was approved by the House. It would amend current provisions in the state Freedom of Information Act that requires public meetings to be open. Under HB 1056 the public could still attend, virtually. The public entity must publish the method by which people may virtually attend the meeting.

The meetings must still be recorded.

The Senate passed SB 87 concerning the licensing of massage therapists by the Health Department. SB 87 authorizes the state licensing board to deny someone a massage therapy license if the person had committed a prostitution offense.

Also, the Senate approved SB 27, which would ensure that the Health Department hire individuals with experience working with veterans for the staff that answers the state suicide prevention hot lines.

Over the past three years, 1,077 veterans have called the state’s Suicide Prevention hotline, according to the sponsor of SB 27.

SB 87 and SB 27 were sent to House committees. If advanced by the committees, the entire House will vote on them and they will go to the governor’s office for his signature.

January 22, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The Senate passed legislation known as the “Stand Your Ground” bill, which would allow someone to use deadly force to defend themselves against an aggressor.

If enacted, the bill would remove a provision in current law that says people may not use deadly force if they are able to retreat safely.

The Senate approved the measure, Senate Bill 24, on a vote of 27-to-7, with one senator not voting. SB 24 was sent to the House Judiciary Committee, which must consider it before a vote of the entire House of Representatives.

For a bill to become law, both chambers of the legislature must approve the exact same version of it.

The Senate also approved SB 32, which would allow liquor stores to deliver alcoholic beverages to a customer’s home. It would make permanent the temporary allowances initiated by executive order last year, at the start of the pandemic.

Under the bill, customers can only order home deliveries if they’re 21 years of age. The store will have to use its own employees for deliveries, and not third party contractors. The bill only affects wet counties, because liquor stores could only make deliveries in the same county in which they are located.

The vote on SB 32 was close. It needed 18 votes in the 35-member Senate for approval. It passed by a vote of 19-to-9, with seven senators not voting.

In other news, the Senate approved legislation to complete the merger of Henderson State University at Arkadelphia into the Arkansas State University System. SB 116 would abolish the Board of Trustees of Henderson State and vest its duties to the Board of Trustees of the ASU System.

SB 116 also adds two members to the ASU System Board of Trustees, bringing it from five to seven.

The Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor endorsed SB 99, which would regulate “step therapy” protocols.

Health insurance companies are using step therapy in more plans nowadays, as a method of holding down costs of prescription drugs.

Under step therapy, a patient would start with an over the counter drug, for example, because it is relatively cheap. If that drug is not effective, the patent would get a more expensive prescription. Under the protocol, the patient gets more expensive drugs after the insurance company has reviewed the case and determined that the cheaper drug does not work.

According to SB 99, the protocol process can have adverse consequences for the patient’s health. The bill would allow patients to be exempt from protocols if the protocols cause the patient to not receive the most appropriate treatment.

SB 99 would require health insurers to rely on established research and clinical guidelines when they write step therapy protocols into coverage plans.

Patients and their physicians could ask for an exemption from the protocol, and the process of getting an exemption must be clear, readily accessible and convenient.

SB99 would change the law governing health insurance, prescription drugs and the authority of physicians. The bill’s sponsor said that it would be amended to address concerns of affected parties.

January 15, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – The 93rd General Assembly convened with a traditional day of swearing in ceremonies for new members, followed by the governor’s speech in a joint session of the legislature. Then lawmakers immediately got down to business.

More than 400 bills were filed in the first three days, and the public was able to participate as usual when they were heard in committee.

The governor proposed raising teacher salaries by $2,000 a year. It would take two years to phase in the increase, and would cost about $25 million annually. A spokesman for the Department of Education said that the average teacher salary last year was $49,822.

Also, the governor proposed an additional $50 million a year in tax cuts for middle class and low income families. One specific proposal was to lower the state sales tax on the purchase of used cars valued between $4,000 and $10,000, from 6.5 to 3.5 percent. Now, used car purchases of less than $4,000 are completely exempt from the sales tax.

Legislators have questioned another of the governor’s tax cut proposals, to lower income tax rates for new Arkansas residents in the top bracket, from 5.9 to 4.9 percent for the first five years they live in the state. The goal is to attract people to Arkansas who will invest and create jobs here.

Lawmakers expressed support for the governor’s proposal to spend $30 million to continue expanding broadband access across Arkansas.

Senate Bill 107 would require high school students to pass a computer science course in order to graduate, beginning with students who will be in the 9th grade in the 2022-2023 school year.

SB 107 was referred to the Senate Education Committee, which in the past has always been crowded with spectators and people wanting to comment, such as parents, patrons, superintendents and school board members.

This year Senate Education will meet in the Old Supreme Court Room rather than its traditional location in Room 207, because the Old Supreme Court Room is larger and people can more easily maintain safe social distancing.

The public and people waiting to speak on bills will wait in Room 272, which is just across the hall from the Old Supreme Court Room.

The Senate Judiciary Committee also tends to draw a crowd, due to the nature of legislation it considers. When the committee considered and gave a favorable recommendation to SB 24, commonly known as the “Stand Your Ground” bill, the public was allowed to voice opinions as always.

The Judiciary Committee met in Room 171, as always, while the public watched on live television monitors from Room 207.

The public can sign up to speak on legislation, as always, but this year they can also sign up online.

When a member of the public signs up to speak, they wait in a nearby room. When it is their turn to testify, a legislative staffer will escort them from Room 207 to the Judiciary Committee meeting in Room 171, or from the waiting area in Room 272 to the Education Committee in the Old Supreme Court Room.

All waiting rooms for the public are very close to the committee rooms, and they are clearly marked. Employees at the Capitol will help anyone with questions about where to go.

January 8, 2021

LITTLE ROCK – When the Arkansas legislature convenes the 2021 regular session, the first major challenge on the agenda will be ensuring that the public can still safely participate in the democratic process.

Visitors to the Capitol must wear a face mask, and they will be given a temperature check to make sure they are not running a fever.

There will be limited seating for visitors, because of Health Department regulations that restrict the number of people who can safely sit in the public galleries.

Legislative leaders were finalizing details of a safety plan up until the beginning of the session, which this year will convene at noon on January 11. They were working with the Secretary of State, who is the constitutional officer who is in charge of maintaining the Capitol and its grounds.

Several changes were made in how legislative committees will function during the pandemic.

Legislative committees review all proposed legislation before they are voted on during full sessions of the Senate and House. It is during committee meetings that the public can comment on bills.

Committee rooms in the Capitol have been connected with video technology, so that when a committee is in session the public can keep up with the action from a nearby room. If members of the public want to voice opinions on a bill, they will be allowed to do so, but there will be rules about where they must wait until it is their turn to speak.

Senators will consider adoption of new rules for the 2021 session that would allow legislators to participate remotely, in the event they are under quarantine or have concerns about appearing in person at the Capitol.

The legislature will address a series of familiar issues, along with some new ones.

Funding public schools is one of the first duties that lawmakers will take care of, because of the state’s Constitutional obligation to adequately and equitably provide an education to every child in Arkansas. Education funding accounts for more than half of the Arkansas general revenue budget.

Other vital state services include operating prisons and re-entry programs for inmates returning to society. Juvenile justice, foster care and adoption services are run by the state.

The state pays for health care, treatment of drug and alcohol abuse, residential care for people with developmental disabilities and nursing home care.

Apart from setting budgets and spending levels for state agencies, there will be bills affecting the rights of taxpayers, gun owners, businesses and voters.

Revenue Report

The state revenue report for December shows that the Arkansas economy continues to recover from the impact of the pandemic.

For the first six months of Fiscal Year 2021, total general revenue was up $320.7 million over the same period of the previous year. That is a 9.5 percent increase.

The revenue report is an accurate gauge of economic activity in Arkansas, because tax rates have not gone up. In fact, the top state income tax rate just went down from 6.6 to 5.9 percent on January 1, thanks to a tax cut written into Act 182 of 2019.

December 31, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – When the legislature convenes in regular session at noon on Monday, January 11, the individuals in the Senate will bring a wide variety of real-world experience to the task.

Of the 35 members in the Senate, eight have run a business, three are in farming and four are attorneys. Two senators are in insurance and two senators are in banking or finance.

Four senators have a background in health care and three have experience in teaching or educational administration. Three senators are in construction or real estate development or both. One is an accountant, one is a pastor and one is in the technology industry.

Three senators work or have worked with economic development agencies.

One senator joined the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association and competed on the professional rodeo circuit as a professional bull rider for four years.

Three senators are veterans of the armed forces. One senator was the mayor of his home town and three served on the city council. Four served on their local school boards and three were elected to terms on the county quorum court. Of the 35 senators, 21 served previously in the House of Representatives.

Arkansas has a citizen legislature, which meets in odd-numbered years in a regular session that typically lasts about three months. In the most recent regular session the legislature considered 1,670 pieces of legislation and enacted 1,092.

In even-numbered years the legislature meets in fiscal session to approve spending levels for state agencies and appropriate funds for schools, colleges and universities. In the 2020 fiscal session, that required passage of 188 separate appropriation bills.

Generally, the experience that senators bring to the legislature influence their agendas. The most common example is that educators choose to serve on the Senate Education Committee and people in business serve on the Insurance and Commerce Committee, farmers choose to be on the Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Committee and senators with a background in health care tend to choose assignments on the Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.

Attorneys often select a spot on the Judiciary Committee, which considers legislation that would change the state’s criminal and civil code, as well as rules of courtroom procedure. The committee also considers legislation that affects the case loads of judges and prosecutors.

The Senate has seven women and three African-Americans. The party breakdown is 28 Republicans and seven Democrats.

Red Tape Reduction

A lot of legislative work carries on from one session to the next. For example, Act 600 of 2019 made it the duty of the legislature to regularly review licensing requirements for occupations that fall under government regulation.

Legislators are to seek the least restrictive form of licensing, while at the same time protecting consumers and the public.

A subcommittee has released its first list of recommended changes in licensing, in time for the legislature to consider during the 2021 session.

It recommended repeal of a law that requires sprinkler fitters to be licensed. Their businesses already must get a license, so the recommendation would eliminate duplication. For similar reasons it recommended repeal of licensing requirements for motor vehicle salesmen.

It also recommended repeal of the law requiring lime applicators to be licensed.

December 23, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – A task force on law enforcement recommended that police officers get more training, more pay and more opportunities for advanced education.

The Task Force to Advance the State of Law Enforcement was appointed by the governor last summer, when many American cities were experiencing protests sparked by the death of a Minneapolis man while being arrested.

The 25 members of the task force represent law enforcement, community advocates, civic organizations, businesses and locally-elected municipal leaders. Their list of recommendations include measures that can be implemented by local and state officials. Other measures would require the approval of new laws by the legislature.

The task force recommended that law enforcement agencies seek funding so that front-line duty officers can be equipped with state-of-the-art body cameras by 2026. Police departments also would need additional computer space to store the video footage.

The task force surveyed Arkansas police departments and learned that the cost of cameras, combined with insufficient funding for computers and staff to manage the video footage, were the main reason for a lack of body cameras.

Entry salaries should be equivalent or higher than the average annual wage in Arkansas, the task force recommended. Raises should correspond to years of service, rank and responsibility. A portion of a police officer’s salary should be exempt from state income taxes. Retirement benefits of police officers should be partially exempted from state income taxes, and disability insurance should be more affordable.

Police officers should be able to attend local state-supported colleges free of tuition, in programs similar to those available for members of the armed forces.

The task force recommended restrictions on the number of part-time officers a department could hire.

The state has already made progress on one of the task force recommendations – to maintain and expand use of Crisis Stabilization Units. The state has opened four units, where police officers can take people who are experiencing a mental health crisis. They are in Fayetteville, Fort Smith, Jonesboro and Little Rock.

People who are brought to the units get treatment from trained professionals, whereas in the past they would likely have spent a night in jail and their condition could have worsened. To best take advantage of the units, officers should be trained in how to recognize and respond to a mental health crisis.

The task force recommended more training in communications and ethics. Officers should be trained to recognize any bias they may have, and how to inter-act with people from other cultures. That includes learning about customs, décor, religious practices and slang.

The legislature will consider a recommendation that a statewide data base keep a list of police officers who have been fired for excessive use of force or dishonesty.

Arkansas should participate in a national effort to compile data on the use of force by police officers, to provide a better understanding of overall trends.

Another recommendation is that recruits be required during training to spend time within observing and interacting with people in the community where they will work.  Police departments should work with organizations in minority communities to learn how to build more trust in police officers.

Evaluations should include psychological assessments of aggression, bias and character, to assure that officers are emotionally fit to serve.

December 11, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – One of the most important duties for legislators is to set spending levels for state agencies.

The level of state government spending determines how much of a surplus is left at the end of the fiscal year.

One of the legislature’s most important decisions is how much of a surplus to accumulate, and what to do with it. One option is to lower taxes, which lowers the available surplus because it decreases revenue for government. Another option is to spend the surplus on one-time capital projects. It can also be transferred to programs that have been affected by spending cuts.

Another option is to place the surplus in a “rainy day” fund, to be available in periods of financial crisis. That option will be seriously considered by legislators during the 2021 regular session that begins in January.

The legislature has the constitutional authority to appropriate tax revenue and set government spending levels. That authority is often called “the power of the purse strings.” By designating where tax dollars are spent, the legislature officially determines the state’s priorities on education, transportation, health care, tax rates and many other areas of public policy.

As the head of the executive branch, the governor presents a balanced budget plan to the legislature as a starting point. Legislators modify that budget plan to reflect their priorities. When the regular session is finished next spring the state will have an official budget for Fiscal Year 2022, which begins on July 1, 2021.

In a letter accompanying his presentation of a balanced budget, the governor proposed increasing the amount in the state’s long-term reserve fund from about $185 million now to about $420 million after the next two fiscal years.

General revenue from state taxes will amount to an estimated $5.68 billion this year. It is forecast to increase to $5.8 billion next fiscal and $6 billion the following fiscal year.

Larger reserve funds improve the state’s bond ratings, which saves agencies money on building projects. It is well known in state government that Arkansas does not deficit spend, which means that unlike Washington we don’t used borrowed money to pay for ongoing operational costs.

However, universities and state agencies issue bonds for buildings and capital improvements. Issuing bonds is a way of borrowing money for one-time expenses. For example, last week the Arkansas Highway Commission voted to refinance a series of bonds in order to take advantage of low interest rates.

Over the past five years, tax cuts enacted by the legislature have slowed the growth of state revenue by several hundred million dollars a year.

The state is on pace to accumulate a healthy budget surplus, even after taking into account the loss of revenue from those tax reductions, and the drop in tax collections due to the economic effect of the pandemic.

Surpluses are created because Arkansas legislators consistently adopt very conservative budgets for state government. Also, Arkansas operates under a balanced budget law called the Revenue Stabilization Act, which requires state agencies to reduce spending if an economic downturn results in reduced revenue from sales and income taxes.

December 4, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas college students who receive lottery scholarships had until the first of October to document successful completion of summer coursework, in order to maintain their eligibility this fall.

With the passing of that deadline, the state Department of Higher Education is able to compile a final report to legislators on the numbers and types of students who receive lottery scholarships, which are known as Academic Challenge Scholarships. They are funded mostly with revenue from the sale of lottery tickets.

Currently, there are 31,649 students receiving scholarships valued at $90,631,361. Those students had a combined grade point average of 3.49 in high school and an average score of 23.4 on their ACTs. While in college, they have maintained a GPA of 3.07 while earning 25 hours. Their parents’ incomes average $74,041 a year.

The ACT is a standardized test used by universities and colleges for admission and placement.

The legislature closely monitors scholarship numbers, especially members of the Legislative Council’s Lottery Oversight Committee. After Arkansas voters approved the lottery in 2008, the legislature enacted enabling laws in the 2009 session.

Since then lawmakers have changed scholarship amounts and eligibility criteria to maintain the financial viability of the program. Freshmen receive $1,000 and if they maintain their eligibility they receive $4,000 as sophomores and as juniors, and $5,000 as seniors.

Students at two-year colleges get $1,000 their first year and $3,000 the second year.

The amounts now being awarded are different than students received if they originally were awarded a scholarship before the 2016-2017 school year.

There are 19,159 female students getting lottery scholarships, compared to 12,159 male students. The Higher Education Department doesn’t know the gender of 331 students.

The state Lottery Office is within the Department of Finance and Administration. Last fiscal year it had operating revenue of $532 million, most of which was returned as prizes to people who bought lottery tickets.

Vision Screenings

In 2005 the legislature enacted more rigorous standards for screening young students who may have vision problems. Act 1438 of 2005 requires public and charter schools to test students in kindergarten through grade four, as well as sixth and eighth graders. Only certified school nurses may perform the vision screenings.

The act also requires regular reports to the legislature. This year Arkansas school nurses screened 251,246 students and 27,387 were referred for follow ups and possible treatment. Children with vision disorders are vulnerable to delays in their learning and development.

Revenue Report

Arkansas state revenue came in above forecast in November, in spite of the pandemic’s severe economic effect on the hospitality and recreation industry.

Revenue reports are accurate measures of economic activity. For the first five months of the current fiscal year, revenue is up 11.4 percent over last year.

Income tax collections, which reflect job activity, are up 15.5 percent over the same period of last year. Sales tax revenue, which is an indicator of how much people are spending, is up 9.1 percent over last year.

Even though revenue numbers were good, the state’s economic forecaster cautions that Arkansas businesses face many unknowns in the second half of the fiscal year.

November 27, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Over the past two years, few areas in state government have changed as much as the Division of Youth Services.

In November of 2018 the division began an extensive overhaul of its physical facilities, and at the same time brought in widespread changes in how it handles juveniles who get in trouble with the law.

The legislature embraced those reforms by passing Act 189 of 2019, which put into law many of the ideas that division officials were proposing.

The number of teenagers in custody has gone down significantly. Before the reforms, there were 73 juveniles in county-run lockups and 352 young people in a residential facility operated by the division. Earlier this year the division reported that only six juveniles were in county detention centers and 235 were in residential programs.

The division is placing youths in programs closer to home and has closed two detention centers, in Dermott and Colt.

Last week it was reported that another former detention center, at Lewisville, will be converted into a substance abuse treatment facility for teenagers. Judges who hear juvenile cases said that a treatment center was needed, and were glad to have an option besides locking up troubled youths.

Some juveniles need drug treatment more than they need to be in custody in a secure detention center, one judge said.

Under Act 189, juveniles are assessed under a uniform statewide system. Previously, in some areas of the state juveniles were placed in custody for relatively minor offenses. Staff are instructed to involve parents more in their child’s treatment plan.

Measuring the long-term success of the reforms will be whether or not juveniles change their course in life and avoid prison sentences as adults.

CARES Act Relief Funding

The CARES Act steering committee has recommended using $50 million in federal relief funds to hold down expected increases in rates for unemployment insurance.

The state Workforce Services Division said that doing nothing would cause 2021 tax rates for unemployment insurance to significantly increase. Businesses that would be charged with the largest increases would in many cases be the same businesses hit hardest by the pandemic, the division director said.

Rates are set based on the amounts put into a state unemployment insurance fund, and by factoring in the amount of unemployment benefits paid to laid off workers.

So far this year, there have been about $207 million charges against the fund for about 26,000 companies. Among the most affected businesses are restaurants, hotels, retail stores, hospitals, clinics and manufacturers.

The payment of benefits to laid off workers could result in rate increases of 36 percent for those businesses, the state Commerce Secretary said. He gave the example of one large business that would see its unemployment insurance costs go up from $21 to $340 per employee, if nothing is done.

The steering committee and legislators already had approved putting $165 million into the unemployment trust fund. This second round of funding would bring the amount of government relief for unemployment to $215 million.

November 20, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas schools this fall have seen a drop in enrollment of about 6,428 students.

The good news is that the number of students in computer science courses is more than 10,000, which is a record high.

The number of children being home schooled has gone up by 3,888 compared to last year. The total number of children in Arkansas being home schooled this year is 26,039.

The total enrollment in Arkansas public schools this year is 473,004, based on a count done in October by state education officials and reported to the state Board of Education. This year’s enrollment is down more than 1 percent compared with October of 2019, when it was 479,432.

The change in enrollment from public schools to home schools can be attributed to parents’ concerns about the safety of their children during the coronavirus pandemic.

The younger the age group, the more remarkable is the increase in home schooling this year. For example, there has been a 72 percent increase in the number of kindergarten students being home schooled. For first graders the increase was more than 55 percent and for third graders the increase in home schooled children was more than 51 percent.

Public education is high among the priorities of the Arkansas legislature, and state aid provides more than half of local school district revenue. Funding is based on enrollment, so financial consequences follow any changes in the number of children in the classroom.

In the proposed budget for state government for next fiscal year, the general revenue fund would be about $5.8 billion. Of that amount, more than $2.5 billion would go into the state’s Public School Fund.

During the interim between legislation sessions, the Senate and House Education Committees work at length on the school funding formula, in order to recommend the amount that will adequately fund public schools. The Arkansas Constitution makes it the state’s duty to provide an equal and adequate education for all children, and the state has lost school funding lawsuits when it failed to do so.

The number of students in computer science classes rose by 6.5 percent over last year, according to the recent enrollment reports.

The Education Department reported that more girls than ever are taking at least one computer science class. The number of female students rose to 3,135, which is 28 percent more than last year and 1,300 percent more than in 2014, when 223 girls were enrolled in computer science classes.

When the legislature convenes in January, it will consider a bill that would require all students to pass a computer science class to graduate. It also would require all high schools to hire at least one certified computer science teacher.

Enrollment has been dramatically increasing since 2015, when the legislature approved Act 187 to require all Arkansas high schools to offer at least one computer science course. Since then, the state also has increased opportunities for teachers to become certified in computer sciences.

There were 274 teachers certified in computer science last year, compared to only six when Act 187 was passed.

November 6, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The state is helping people who have trouble paying their rent because of the coronavirus pandemic.

People affected by the pandemic are eligible for help if their household income is less than 80 percent of the median income in their area. They can qualify for two-and-a-half months of rent under the newly created Fresh Start program.

Money comes from about $10 million in relief grants received by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission and the Arkansas CARES Act Steering Committee. It will be administered by the Arkansas Community Action Agencies Association (ACAA).

To get help, apply to your local Community Action Agency, which are non-profit organizations. There are 15 in Arkansas and they serve all 75 counties in the state.

The CARES Act Steering Committee comprises top state officials appointed by the governor. The group considers how best to allocate about $1.25 billion in federal relief funds approved by Congress at the beginning of the pandemic.

The state Secretary of Commerce, who is over the AEDC, said that short-term rental assistance provided through the Fresh Start program would benefit both renters and landlords.

A recent survey by the United States Census Bureau estimated that as many as 139,000 Arkansas households are in danger of not being able to pay rent, specifically because of financial hardships created by the pandemic.

If you’re interested in applying for rental assistance, a list of community action agencies and their contact information is available on the ACAA website. It is at acaa.org.

Click on the tab first tab on the front page of the site, which is labeled “Emergency Services.”  It opens to a new page, and Rent Payment Assistance Information is the top tab on the new page. If you click on it, you will see a list of the 15 community action agencies in Arkansas and their contact information. It also lists the counties that each agency serves.

College Athletics

State-supported colleges and universities spent $191.5 million last year on athletics, which was 4.8 percent below the amount they spent the previous year.

State law requires the Arkansas Higher Education Coordinating Board to set uniform standards for institutions to report athletic expenditures, so that comparisons are fair.

The bulk of the money spent on athletics was generated by income from athletic events, such as ticket sales and souvenir sales. That category generated $115 million, or more than 59 percent of the total.

Student fees for athletics generated more than $26 million, which amounted to 13.5 percent of the total spent on sports.

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville accounted for the lion’s share of athletic spending, about $117 million. Arkansas State University at Jonesboro was second, spending about $21 million on athletics last year.

The University of Central Arkansas at Conway spent about $13 million on athletics, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock spent $9 million, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff spent $7.8 million and Arkansas Tech University in Russellville spent about $6 million.

Seven of the state’s two-year colleges spent $1.7 million on athletics.

About 8 percent of athletic department spending came from transfers from colleges and universities’ education and general accounts. That amounted to $15.7 million.

October 16, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature has begun budget hearings, in preparation for the regular session that begins in January.

Setting spending levels for state agencies is the most time-consuming duty for legislators. It also is one of the most important duties of the legislature, even though it rarely generates a lot of publicity.

The budget work that begins in mid-October will be finalized in late March and early April of 2020, when the regular legislative session is expected to end. The budgets will set spending levels for state agencies for Fiscal Year 2022, which will begin on July 1, 2021.

Legislators have discretion over how to allocate about $5.6 billion in net general revenue. Its main sources are the state sales tax, the state individual income tax and the state corporate income tax.

In addition to state agencies, the legislature distributes aid to public schools and institutions of higher education.

Schools have other sources of revenue apart from state aid, chiefly the local property tax and some federal funds. Colleges and universities have revenue aside from state aid, mainly in the form of tuition, fees and donations.

Many state agencies receive federal funds in addition to the state dollars they receive in net general revenue. In total, Arkansas state agencies received about $9 billion in federal funding last fiscal year. The bulk of that total, more than $6 billion, went to the state Human Services Department for Medicaid, a health program for senior citizens, people with disabilities and low-income families.

Also, state agencies generate special revenues, which come from taxes collected for specific purposes. The largest category is the motor fuels tax, which generates more than $870 million in special revenue for the Transportation Department to maintain and build highways.

The state earns interest from banks and financial institutions and has numerous miscellaneous sources of revenue, such as fees for hunting and fishing licenses, leases from oil and gas producers, and rentals of cabins in state parks.

In all, state government has a total operating budget of $33 billion, according to the most recent data from the Finance and Administration Department.

In order to ensure that appropriations are spent properly, legislators and a team of accountants conduct audits on a year-round basis. They audit state agencies, school districts and institutions of higher education, and the results are reported to the Legislative Joint Audit Committee.

During regular sessions and fiscal sessions, the Joint Budget Committee review agency budgets and spending requests. During the interim between sessions, the Legislative Council and its subcommittees closely monitor state government spending to make sure that tax revenue is spent for the purposes set out in legislative appropriations.

Those subcommittees include the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee, which monitors financial practices, and the Personnel Subcommittee, which oversees staff changes.

Legislative subcommittees have been created to specifically monitor Medicaid, prisons, the Transportation Department, the Game and Fish Commission, the State Police, lottery scholarships, the health insurance marketplace and the regulatory boards that license occupations.

October 9, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – In this year’s election, Arkansas voters will determine the outcome of three proposed amendments to the state Constitution.

If approved by voters, Issue One would make permanent the current half-cent sales tax that pays for highway construction and maintenance. In 2010, Arkansas voters approved spending the revenue from a half-cent sales tax on road work, and that tax is scheduled to expire in 2023.

Another measure on the ballot is Issue Two, which would limit the terms of Arkansas legislators to 12 years. However, current legislators would be “grandfathered” in and could serve 16 years, which is the current term limit in the Constitution.

A major change proposed by Issue Two would be that the 12-year limit would not be a lifetime limit. The current 16-year limit in the Constitution is a lifetime limit, which means an individual who is term limited may never again run for a seat in the state legislature.

Issue Two, if approved by voters, would limit an individual to 12 consecutive years of service in the legislature, at which point the individual would have to step down. However, after a wait of four years, that person would be able to run again for legislative office.

Issue Three is perhaps the most complex ballot issue this year, because it affects a complex procedure with which many Arkansans are not familiar. It would change the process by which organizations collect signatures to get citizen initiatives on the ballot.

The initiative process is how the lottery scholarship was established in Arkansas, and also how casino gambling and medical marijuana became legal.

Almost every initiative is been challenged in court by its opponents. Lawsuits challenge the validity of the signatures submitted to get the initiative placed on the ballot.

Another common legal challenge is to question the sufficiency of the ballot title. If a ballot title fails to reflect the substance of the proposed initiative, the Supreme Court will strike it from the ballot for being misleading to voters.

Almost every election year, the final Supreme Court decisions are not handed down until just a few days or weeks before the election. That can confuse voters. For example, this year several proposals have been invalidated, leaving only Issues One, Two and Three on the ballot.

Issue Three would move up the deadline for submitting signatures, from early July to January 15 in election years. Legal challenges would have to be filed by April 15.

Also, Issue Three would spread out signature gathering. Now, signatures must come from at least 15 counties. If approved by voters, Issue Three would require signatures be gathered from at least 45 counties.

It would raise the bar for the legislature, which now may refer up to three proposed constitutional amendments during each regular session by a simple majority vote. Issue Three would require a 60 percent majority in order for the General Assembly to refer a measure.

Between 1884 and 2018, the legislature referred 124 proposed constitutional amendments to the ballot. Arkansas voters approved 71 of those measures and defeated 53 of them.

October 2, 2020

LITTLE ROCK –Arkansas legislators approved using $165 million in federal relief funds to shore up the state unemployment insurance trust fund.

Legislative leadership approved an emergency request to allocate the $165 million in order to prevent increases in rates that businesses have to pay into the fund to keep it solvent.

However, approval of the funding was not a smooth process. The Legislative Council convened in a hastily called meeting to express frustration that officials at the Division of Workforce Services (DWS) failed to inform legislators until the eleventh hour that automatic rate increases in unemployment insurance were imminent.

The division administers claims for unemployment, which have set records due to layoffs caused by the spread of the coronavirus. Also, during the pandemic the division has received many more fraudulent claims than is normal.

The dramatic increase in unemployment filings has threatened to deplete the trust fund below certain thresholds. If the fund balance were to fall below those thresholds, businesses would be hit with automatic increases in the rates they must pay in order to maintain the fund’s solvency.

Legislators expressed frustration that DWS officials failed to keep them informed of the rapid decrease in the unemployment fund.

By the time they were notified of the problem, legislators had almost no time to work on a solution and their options were limited. Legislators were under extreme pressure to approve the DWS request in order to prevent a rate increase on businesses that already have been hard hit by the pandemic.

Several lawmakers expressed frustration that it was not the first time that a lack of communication had put them in a difficult position with constituents. For example, at the beginning of the pandemic, when laid off workers had to wait extremely long periods of time to submit their claims for unemployment, legislators received a flood of complaints about the slowness of the system.

One senator said that the legislature is consistently the last body to be informed about executive branch decisions, and perhaps he would support new laws to require more timely and more accurate financial reporting from state agencies to legislative committees.

Also, legislators wanted assurances from DWS officials that failures to anticipate trust fund depletions will not occur again.

In the economic recession of 2008 and 2009, claims filed by unemployed workers drained the fund to the extent that Arkansas had to borrow $360 million from the federal government. That had serious financial consequences for Arkansas businesses and workers.

Act 802 0f 2009 raised the amount that companies have to pay into the fund and Act 861 of 2009 reduced benefits for laid off workers.

Act 512 of 2019 sets the taxable wage base that determines how much businesses have to pay in unemployment insurance. This year the taxable wage base is $7,000 but will go up to $10,000 in 2021, according to DWS officials who spoke to the Legislative Council. In effect, that will increase the rates that businesses pay for unemployment insurance.

The Legislative Council is the committee of lawmakers that monitors the operations of state government during the interims between regular sessions.

September 25, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas cities and counties that have been hit hard by the economic impact of the coronavirus can apply for help, after legislators approved the use of $150 million for relief grants.

Cities and counties can apply online for expense reimbursements, with a total limit for the 499 municipalities in Arkansas set at $75 million. The total limit for the state’s 75 counties will be the same amount.

Cities and counties must provide documentation, to prove that the expenses are allowed to be reimbursed with federal CARES Act funds.

CARES is an acronym that stands for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. It was approved by Congress and signed by the president in March to offset the financial impact caused by the coronavirus pandemic. Arkansas is to receive about $1.25 billion in total from the act.

Legislators and state officials intend for the grant process to move quickly. The first deadline for applying is October 30, with another deadline on November 16 for applications that may be incomplete.

The Legislative Council approved the use of $150 million in CARES Act funds for relief for cities and counties. The Council is the legislative body that monitors state government operations in the interim between sessions.

During discussion, legislators confirmed from the officials who will administer the grants that cities can be reimbursed for the cost of helping residents with utility bills. The state Department of Finance and Administration will disburse the grants to cities and counties.

Many utilities have not cut off service for non-payment of bills, because of policies enacted to help people who lost their jobs or businesses due to the coronavirus.

An official of DFA said that grants would reimburse local governments for rental assistance, mortgage assistance and food banks.

A related effort is in the works to help the Arkansas tourism industry. The state Parks, Heritage and Tourism Department is writing a list of allowable reimbursements that will provide financial help for the hospitality and service industries.

Senators on the Legislative Council said tourism has been especially hard hit by the pandemic. They are working to see that some CARES Act relief is disbursed to local convention and visitors bureaus, because those local agencies promote business in local hotels, restaurants, gift shops and tourist destinations.

Higher Education Enrollment Declines

An indicator of how the coronavirus is affecting Arkansas is that only three public institutions of higher education reported an increase in enrollment in undergraduates for the fall semester. They are the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff (10.5 percent), the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences (29 percent) and Southern Arkansas University Tech at Camden (2.1 percent).

The enrollment figures don’t account for students in nearby high schools taking concurrent classes.

Another factor in the enrollment decline is that colleges and universities have changed their focus to retaining and graduating students, rather than boosting enrollment numbers. Over the past five years, the number of students in higher education in Arkansas has dropped 13.2 percent, from 115,468 to 100,241

September 18, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Census workers across Arkansas will be knocking on doors until the end of September in a last-ditch effort to make sure that as many people as possible get counted in the 2020 U.S. Census.

Undercounting the population of a state or community has long-term negative consequences, because the benefits of so many government programs are allocated according to census data. For example, an undercount of as little as one percent would mean the loss of a billion dollars in federal funding in Arkansas over the next ten years.

The potential loss of federal dollars would have a negative effect on Medicaid, food stamp programs, highway maintenance and construction, education and the availability of childcare subsidies.

Census workers are visiting homes in communities that traditionally have been hard to reach. Sometimes they leave packets on doorsteps if they are unable to contact anyone in the home.

However, it’s not necessary to wait for a census worker to visit your house. You can fill out the census over the phone in about 10 minutes. Call 844-330-2020. After you have completed the census, encourage everyone you know to complete it.

The census is conducted every 10 years, and this is the first time that a majority of people will complete it online. You can fill out the form online by going to https://my2020census.gov

Your personal information will be kept confidential. Also, you will not be asked financial questions, such as bank account numbers or credit card numbers. You will not be asked for your Social Security number either. You will not be asked for money and you will not be questioned about your political opinions.

If you suspect that you have been contacted by a deceptive outfit that is trying to defraud you, check out the address of their website. The address of a valid census web page will always have “gov” at the end.

Nationwide, 65.9 percent of the population have already responded to the census on their own volition. In Arkansas, 60 percent have responded by telephone, Internet or traditional mail.

Helping Our Neighbors

Twenty firefighters from Arkansas, including five employees of the Arkansas Department of Agriculture’s Forestry Division, are fighting wildfires in Oregon.

Crews in California, Oregon and Washington have been pushed to the breaking point battling wildfires on more than 2 million acres this year.

In addition to the five employees of the state Forestry Division, the so-called “Razorback Crew” has eight Arkansas employees from the U.S Forest Service, two from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, two from the National Parks Service, and three from of the Bureau of Indian Affairs.

Two other employees of the state Forestry Division recently returned from California, where they helped battle wildfires.

The legislature created the Forestry Division in 1931 to protect state woodlands from fire and other natural hazards. State forestry officials estimate that since 1935 they have helped put out more than 225,000 forest fires.

After tornadoes and ice storms, Forestry Division employees help clear roadways for emergency vehicles, and set up command centers for first responders.

It also has a nursery in North Little Rock, from which it provides low-costs seedlings to Arkansas residents for reforestation projects.

September 11, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Before this year, the legislature had already laid the groundwork for expansions of broadband capability in education and health care.

In response to the changing needs of schools and businesses during the coronavirus pandemic, legislators have accelerated the pace of projects that expand broadband access in rural Arkansas and in small towns.

Thanks in large part to funding in the federal CARES Act, state officials have been able to beef up wireless capacity throughout Arkansas.

CARES is an acronym that stands for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. It was approved by Congress and signed by the president in March to offset the financial impact caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Arkansas is to receive about $1.25 billion in total from the act, which made possible funding of $25 million for broadband. That amount was increased in August by $100 million.

As a result of legislative action last week, more businesses, such as electric cooperatives, now are eligible to participate in the Arkansas Rural Connect program. Already, internet service providers, such as telephone companies, could join the program.

The legislative action made the rules of the program more flexible in another important category – the population threshold needed for eligibility. Previously, a community had to have at least 500 people in order to qualify for a grant, but many isolated communities had difficulty reaching that threshold. After the legislative rules change, they can now apply for a grant.

The rules change was approved by the Legislative Council’s Executive Subcommittee and implemented by the state Commerce Department. The benefits of the change are numerous. All companies with the capability can now work with local governments to expand Internet access within their boundaries. Municipalities that own their own utility service are also included. More rural communities qualify for the grants. Expanding access to broadband allows telemedicine, distance learning and working from home.

The goal of the Arkansas Rural Connect program is to help areas that lack Internet, and areas where Internet service is unreliably slow and inconsistent.

The legislature had already laid the foundation for expansion of Internet services across Arkansas with the passage of Act 198 of 2019. It revised the complex regulatory process governing telecommunications, to allow more entities to become Internet providers.

The Arkansas Rural Connect program is just one of several state efforts to expand Internet access. The state Education Department is spending $10 million to buy 20,000 devices that create “hot spots.”

In addition, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences is administering a $2 million grant program for rural communities to expand Internet. It helps them pay for the costs of applying for grants, which can be considerable.

Government aid is available for areas that lack Internet service, but in order to demonstrate a lack of service the community has to conduct an accurate survey. Very few small towns have budgeted money for conducting surveys.

A goal of the UAMS grants, known as Rural Broadband I.D. Expenses Trust Fund Grants, is to fill that need and help small communities pay for the documentation and preparation needed to successfully gain grants. The program was created by Act 139 of 2020.

September 4, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – County clerks are preparing for a sharp increase in the number of absentee ballots that they expect to be turned in for the November 3 general election.

The governor issued an executive order in early August that cleared up questions about voting absentee if you have concerns about appearing in person at your polling place, because of the coronavirus.

You may vote absentee whether you are concerned for your own safety, or whether your concern is that your presence at the polling place may affect the health of other people.

Both the secretary of state and the governor agree that fear of exposure to COVID-19, or fear of exposing others, is sufficient reason for requesting an absentee ballot.

Another provision in the executive order is important for county clerks and election officials. It allows them to start processing absentee ballots up to 15 days before election day, in order to get a head start on the anticipated increase.

The extra days for processing will coincide with the early voting period. They can open outer envelopes and begin processing voter registration information, but they will not be allowed to open the inner envelope and count the absentee ballots. They may not open and begin counting absentee ballots until 8:30 a.m. on the morning of Tuesday, November 3, which is election day.

Already they have experienced a significant increase in request for absentee ballots. Four years ago, about 40,000 Arkansas residents voted absentee. This year the Secretary of State’s office anticipates more than 125,000 mail-in ballots to be requested and submitted, according to an office spokesman.

Pulaski County has received 10,000 requests for absentee ballots, compared to 1,500 at the same date in 2016, the county clerk told the statewide newspaper.

The deadlines for requesting and returning absentee ballots, as well as other information about voting absentee, can be found on the website of the Secretary of State, under the tab labeled “Elections.” This page has good information for members of the Armed Services stationed abroad. For example, family members stationed overseas follow the same procedures as military personnel when requesting and submitting absentee ballots.

The deadline for registering to vote is October 5. You must be registered in order to request an absentee ballot.

The state is helping counties with personal equipment and other supplies needed to help protect the safety of poll workers on election day.

Revenue Report

During the first two months of the state’s fiscal year, net general revenue collections are 8.9 percent above forecast. That amounts to $93.7 million.

Collection of sales taxes were strong, indicating that people are spending and have a certain level of confidence. Sales and use tax revenue is 12.7 percent above forecast.

Individual income taxes are 6.4 percent above forecast, an indicator that people are getting back to work. State income tax rates have gone down because the legislature enacted a tax cut last year, so the increase in income tax collections is a definite signal of increased employment.

The state fiscal year began July 1. The Arkansas legislature has consistently adopted very conservative budgets for state agencies.

August 21, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas teachers and students are beginning the most challenging school year in living memory.

Last March schools were forced to close because of the spread of the coronavirus, a decision that affected more than 470,000 students and 33,000 teachers.

Arkansas has been trying to close the achievement gap between children in underprivileged homes and those in more prosperous families.

Elected officials and educators are concerned that the changes made necessary by the virus could make that gap wider. When so many students must study from home and take their classes online, it’s critical that they all have access to the same technology.

That’s why state officials have beefed up the Arkansas Rural Connect program, which has distributed more than $10 million in grants to expand broadband access in isolated areas. More grants will be announced over the coming weeks.

Other grants of up to $75,000 help rural communities apply for federal dollars to expand broadband access, through the Rural Broadband I.D. Expenses Trust Fund Grant. It is managed by the Institute for Digital Health & Innovation at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

Also important will be the presence of a parent or family member who is computer literate, who can help students connect with their teachers every day.

According to surveys, when schools had to convert to distance learning last spring, the amount of time that students spent in virtual classrooms was significantly less than when those students physically attended school.

Virtual classrooms last spring focused on reviewing subjects already introduced earlier in the year. This year the challenge will be introducing new material electronically.

The disruption of standardized testing in the spring will have an effect because teachers won’t begin the school year with a clear picture of each student’s individual academic level. This is particularly important this year, when students will experience the so-called “summer slide” to a greater degree because they have spent more time away from school.

In many communities, going to virtual learning will bring attention to how many social services, apart from academics, are provided in schools. Those services include after school programs, meals, mental health counseling and health care.

Educators and elected officials expect an outbreak before the school year is over, either among students or staff. When that happens, they will have to make quick decisions about how to respond. For example, they may have to decide whether or not to close a school temporarily, and if so for how long. State health officials will provide input.

The state Board of Education has waived numerous standards so that local schools have the flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances.

The legislature has always prioritized public education, which accounts for almost half of the money spent from the general revenue fund. Legislators are updating the formula to make sure that state aid to local schools is adequate, in preparation for the regular session that begins in January.

Safety precautions necessitated by the coronavirus will greatly affect the meetings of the Senate and House Education Committees during the 2021 legislation session. The committee’s meetings are almost always filled to capacity, with people in attendance overflowing into the hallways.

August 14, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The Transportation Department is upgrading its web site to make it easier for Arkansas drivers to follow the progress of highway construction projects.

At a recent meeting, the Highway Commission Review and Advisory Subcommittee went over some changes recommended by a private consultant, specifically about the Transportation Department’s communications with the public on the status of construction projects.

The consultant called the department’s communication with the public “disjointed and inconsistent.”

In response, the department director said that the department was in the early stages of redesigning its public website. While much current information about projects is available, she agreed that the website was disjointed because you often have to go to several different pages on the website to find out details about a project.

The department’s new website will be a lot more user friendly, she said, and a goal is to provide “one stop shopping” for viewers seeking specific information about a specific construction project.

One cause of the disjointed nature of the website is that it categorizes some projects according to their funding program, and the public isn’t familiar with those programs.

The new department website may have a function that allows viewers to click on a map, to find out about a particular stretch of highway. It used to have a similar function, but the technology became outdated.

The redesigned website should be available to the public by the end of the year, the director said.

Once it is up and running, it will take personnel to keep information fresh and answer questions. The extent to which the public can interact with staff is an issue for any public agency or private business. As one legislator pointed out during the discussion, some people who ask questions also have all the time in the world.

Legislators asked about how information would be updated on the new website. Manually updating a web page can allow information to quickly become outdated, which creates more frustrations with viewers. The website should automatically input data as it is entered throughout the state by engineers and project managers, a legislator said.

Lawmakers are keenly interested in the Transportation Department’s communication strategy because they often are the first person a constituent contacts with questions about orange barrels and traffic delays caused by highway construction.

Legislators said that a frequent question from constituents is how soon a project will be finished. Knowing the completion date makes it easier for people to cope with the frustration of traffic delays.

The Transportation Department director agreed with the private consultant that there is room for improvement in the website.

However, she pointed out that some of the consultant’s recommendations appeared to involve removing people from the equation and using technology instead. That is a trend commonly experienced nowadays by customers trying to call a business and being required to dial through a long menu of options. Eventually the customer realizes they can’t ever reach a real person, the director told legislators.
“It’s very important when it comes to our roads that people can get a hold of a real person easily,” she said.

August 7, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – More than 28,000 Arkansas residents work in the forest products industry, cutting trees, producing paper and pulp, manufacturing furniture and shipping wood products across the world.

The majority of those jobs are in rural areas. They support ancillary occupations that bring the annual payroll of forestry-related occupations to $1.7 billion. The value of standing timber is estimated to be more than $12.6 billion.

The timber industry accounts for 5.1 percent of the total state economy, which means that forestry makes a bigger contribution to the Arkansas economy than it does in any other southern state. Forestry accounts for 4.6 percent of the Mississippi economy and 4.5 percent of Alabama’s, but only 0.8 percent of the economy of Texas.

About 55 percent of Arkansas, or almost 19 million acres, is forested. Dallas County is the most heavily forested County, according to a Farm Bureau report. It is 94 percent forested. Mississippi County is the least covered in forest, with only five percent.

Most of the forest in Arkansas is hardwood, and about half of the pine forests are planted. Arkansas is the top state for planting oak seedlings in the South.

Also, Arkansas has the largest area of national forest in the South, with 2.5 million acres in the Ouachita and the Ozark-St. Francis National Forests.

In the 10-year period from 2008 through 2017, Arkansas lost an average of 22,740 acres of forest a year to wildfires.

The state Forestry Division was created in 1931 by an act of the legislature, with the purpose of protecting timberland from fires and natural hazards, while promoting the overall health of forests.

Last year Searcy County lost the most acreage to forest fires, with almost 11,000 acres burned. Izard County was second, with more than 6,600 acres of forest lost to fire. Chicot County, in the farm country of southeast Arkansas, came in at the bottom of the list with only three acres of forest lost to fire.

Insects such as beetles, moths, wood borers, worms and weevils can significantly reduce the value of a forest. Trees also can get diseased, especially when they’re under stress from drought or heat. Most of the common diseases are a type of fungus that cause blight, scale, spots, mildew and rust, according to the Cooperative Extension Service.

The University of Arkansas at Monticello has the only school of forestry in the state, but most of our state-supported colleges and universities have programs in agri-business, biology or environmental sciences.

Last year the Extension Service Plant Clinic received 3,321 plant samples for diagnosis of a disease.

County extension agents or staff at the Forestry Commission also help landowners market their timber. Private non-industrial landowners have about 58 percent of the forest land in Arkansas. Harvesting timber may not be their main source of income, but if managed wisely it can become a valuable investment.

Paper products made up almost 4 percent of total Arkansas exports overseas last year. Exports of paper have been on a three-year decline, according to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Exports of recovered waste and scrap paper, with wood pulp, have increased over the same period, from accounting for less than 2 percent of total Arkansas exports to more than 4.25 percent.

July 31, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The state Education Department will spend $10 million to expand Internet access in every school district in Arkansas.

Many parents may keep their children at home during the upcoming school year because of concerns about the spread of Covid-19. Some students may be required to study from home in “virtual” classrooms if there is an outbreak of the virus at their schools.

In that event, the digital divide between low-income families and prosperous families will become even more severe. Students will be more likely to fall behind academically if they have no access to reliable, high speed Internet, or if they only have antiquated mobile devices and computers.

The Education Department will buy up to 20,000 devices and allocate them to schools based on enrollment. School officials will then distribute them to students who need them.

Educators and elected officials say that it is especially important to equalize access to the Internet in rural areas, whether students attend classes on campus or stay home and study in “virtual” classrooms.

More students will be able to work from home to do projects that require Internet access, rather than having to sit at a restaurant or business that offers free wireless. A superintendent at the announcement said that that her rural district provides Internet access on buses and in school parking lots, and that the expanded access becoming available would be a monumental improvement.

The Education Department has signed agreements with major telecommunications companies for wi-fi access points and data plans.

Under the contracts, the companies will guarantee high-speed internet with unlimited data for two years for about $20 per month per device. Also, they agree to allow local school districts to buy additional devices and data plans at the same rate as the state plan.

The $10 million comes from the federal CARES Act, which is a massive relief bill passed by Congress in response to the economic and social disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak. CARES is an acronym that stands for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security.

In its memoranda to local schools, the state calls it the Hotspot Project and says that the intent is to benefit students with the greatest need.

When schools prioritize which students are to be allowed access to a hotspot they are to consider three criteria.

One priority is for students who are learning from home because of the pandemic and who have no way to connect with online learning materials. Another priority is for students who are economically disadvantaged and need help acquiring the equipment they need to access online learning materials. The third priority is for students who are going through periods of being homeless, and thus need help.

Schools are set to open August 24. The Education Secretary has said that his department plans to purchase $1 million of personal protective equipment, such as face masks and gloves. This stockpile will be distributed to schools if they are in danger of depleting their supplies.

The Education Secretary said that schools should be prepared to adapt, for example, they may have to close temporarily for a deep clean.

July 17, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas will hold its annual sales tax holiday on Saturday, August 1, and Sunday, August 2.

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, sunglasses, 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, because they cost more than $100.

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.

Correction

Last week I wrote that the number of children in foster care in Arkansas had gone down 12 percent since 2018, when in fact it went down 12 percent since 2017. The number of children in foster care went down from 4,817 in 2017 to 4,226 from in 2019.

Case workers try to help the family remain intact. If that is not possible, under state law the case workers give preference to relatives rather than people who are not related to the children. According to the independent assessment, Arkansas “made considerable improvements with both placing children in care close to the homes from which they were removed and placing children with relatives.”

July 10, 2020

The number of Arkansas children in foster care continued to go down last year, after reaching an all-time high in 2016 and prompting dramatic measures from elected officials to improve the state’s child welfare system. In 2019 the number of children in foster care was 4,226. That is down 12 percent from 2018, when 4,310 children were in foster care, and also down from 2017, when 4,817 children were in foster homes. In late 2016 the number was close to 5,200 and state officials said the system was in crisis. Staff at the Division of Children and Family Services (DCFS) had unmanageable caseloads, while family and relatives of the children reported a lack of support from within the system. When legislative committees asked DCFS officials about the spike in foster care numbers, they were told that staff who are over-worked tend to err on the side of caution. That often means they remove children from their family because they don’t have time to determine if the home is a safe place. The legislature approved funding for additional case workers. Faith-based organizations and advocacy groups recruited more foster parents. DCFS developed plans for families to improve overall conditions within the home. The legislature passed Act 906 in 2001, which mandates that DCFS provide family preservation services when children are about to be removed from their homes. The National Council on Crime and Delinquency recently completed an independent review of DCFS and its family preservation programs. Those findings were presented to the Senate Committee on Children and Youth. The review applauded our reduction in the number of children in foster care, and noted that more of them had been placed with relatives. In 2019, a third of foster children were with relatives, compared to 28 percent in 2018. The national review recommended that Arkansas improve the stability of foster care placements. In other words, the frequency of being moved for children who spend more than a year within the system. The national standard is 4.12 and the Arkansas average last year was 6.32. Arkansas is consistently above the national average in achieving permanency for children within 12 months after renewal, with about half of the children in Arkansas who are discharged from foster care going to a permanent living situation. That means they go back to their families, to a relative’s home, to custody by a parent who had been non-custodial, to guardianship, adoption or to custody by a non-relative. Also, Arkansas met the national standard for preventing a child’s return to foster care within a year of being discharged. The national standard is 8.3 percent and in Arkansas it was 7.8 percent in 2019. That is an improvement of almost two percentage points since 2017, when it was 9.7 percent. Last year 28,645 child maltreatment reports were investigated in Arkansas, of which 80 percent were referred to DCFS and the remainder to the Crimes Against Children Division of the State Police. DCFS substantiated 21 percent of its investigations, which is close to the trend for the previous two years. DCFS follows up in the 12 months after identifying a child victim of maltreatment. The national standard for recurring maltreatment is 9.1 percent or fewer, and in Arkansas it was 6 percent.

July 3, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – During the upcoming school year, local districts will have flexibility to adapt to changing circumstances created by the outbreak of the coronavirus, thanks to a set of waivers adopted by the state Board of Education during a special meeting.

The waivers affect policies that govern the amount of time a teacher has to spend with students in classroom instruction. They affect teachers’ planning time and teachers’ assignments to non-instructional duties. They affect how much time children will be at recess and the length of the school day. They affect maximum class sizes.

The waivers affect conventional schools and charter schools, allowing them to mix virtual instruction with traditional classroom instruction.

When school districts applied for the waivers they committed to continued tracking of student achievement. As educators prepare for the challenges of the upcoming school year, a common concern is that some students may fall through the cracks because their families lack access to digital technology, such as Internet access and up-to-date computers.

Teacher training must be updated, to account for the greater use of technology not only for instruction of students but also for meetings with parents and other staff.

The waivers provide flexibility for specific education standards and are not written to allow deviations from broader state laws requiring schools to offer equal and adequate education to all students. If it is determined that a local district has abused the availability of waivers, the state Education Board will be able to revoke their waivers.

One Board member who voted against the waivers said that they allowed local districts too much leeway.

However, an official with the Education Department countered that districts must submit for review their plans to rely on waivers, and that there would be penalties for abusing them.

The waivers allow a school board to amend personnel policies and the change will take effect immediately, without having to go through a review by the personnel policy committee. Teachers may be assigned non-instructional duties for more than an hour a day without additional pay, if it is necessary for the district to comply with Health Department guidelines on staying safe during the pandemic.

Many of the waivers only apply on days when schools offer virtual classes. For example, on those days the school day does not have to be six hours on average. Recess for elementary students does not have to be 40 minutes because the students are at home on their computers.

On those days the district is not required to provide teachers with a 30 minute lunch period without any duties, since the teachers will be working from home or from a location away from the school campus.

In related news, the American Academy of Pediatrics has issued a statement that the organization “strongly advocates that all policy considerations for the coming school year should start with a goal of having students physically present in school.”

While recognizing the need for safety measures, the pediatricians state that the “importance of in-person learning is well-documented, and there is already evidence of the negative impacts on children because of school closures in the spring of 2020.”

The pediatricians say that virtual classes make it difficult to recognize children’s learning disabilities, signs of physical or sexual abuse, substance abuse, depression or suicidal tendencies.

June 26, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The state will hire 350 more contact tracers to help control the spread of the coronavirus. After the funding is allocated to pay them, it will bring the state’s total to 900.

Contact tracing is a vital part of the public health strategy to control the spread of communicable diseases. When people come down with the disease, a tracer contacts them to help them remember everyone with whom they were in close contact during the period of time when they were infectious.

For Covid-19, that means anyone who came within six feet of the infected individual for at least 15 minutes. According to the Centers for Disease Control, the contact tracers should identify all people who were with the infected person from 48 hours before he or she began to feel sick, until that person was isolated.

The next step is for the contact tracer to notify those people that they have been exposed to Covid-19. According to the CDC, the tracers will not reveal the identity of the patient who potentially exposed them.

The tracers also support infected individuals by educating them about their risks and how they should isolate themselves from other people, especially from people with pre-existing health conditions who are particularly vulnerable to the severe symptoms of Covid-19. For example, the virus is more likely to be fatal for people with weak immune systems and elderly people.

When a contact tracer notifies someone that he or she has potentially been exposed to the coronavirus, that person is encouraged to stay home and maintain a distance of six feet from other people, for at least 14 days after their most recent exposure to the infected patient.

Contact tracers do their best to contact potentially infected people by telephone, text or video conference, rather than in person. The CDC notes that the job is labor intensive. Contact tracers must be able to communicate well and have compassion so that they generate trust.

Arkansas already had 200 contact tracers working for the state Health Department when the pandemic began. Relying on federal emergency funds, the state added 350 tracers when public health officials anticipated that the caseload in Arkansas would be about 1,000. However, the active number of cases by late June had exceeded 5,500.

The Secretary of Health said that for every individual in Arkansas with Covid-19, contact tracers have identified three other people who were potentially exposed and who should quarantine themselves.

At one of his daily briefings on Covid-19, the governor announced that he had proposed using about $22 million from the state’s share of federal emergency funding available through the CARES Act.

That is an acronym that stands for Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security. The CARES Act was passed by Congress with overwhelming, bipartisan support and signed into law in late March.

Arkansas is scheduled to receive more than $1.2 billion in federal funding under the CARES Act.

As of last week, 28 firms had bid for a contract to provide the manpower for the additional contact tracers. State officials had narrowed those applicants down to six.

June 19, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – As Arkansas began Phase Two of its gradual reopening of businesses and social activities, the governor issued three executive orders related to the coronavirus outbreak.

The first provides immunity from civil liability for businesses and employees, to protect them from frivolous lawsuits alleging they were responsible for someone’s contracting Covid-19, the potentially severe illness caused by the coronavirus.

A second executive order declares that health care staff are considered emergency workers when they’re treating patients suffering from Covid-19, and as such they have immunity from civil lawsuits.

The third order puts Covid-19 in the category of occupational diseases, which means that employees who get sick from the virus at work can claim workers’ compensation benefits.

Support for the three executive orders was not unanimous across the political spectrum, but each side got something it had wanted. The business community applauded the order granting immunity from civil liability. On the other hand some attorneys said that nobody, not even a governor, can abolish an individual’s constitutional right to seek redress of grievances in court.

Apart from any legal questions that remain unanswered, officials hope the executive orders will be a strong incentive for businesses to comply with health guidelines.

In order to receive workers’ comp insurance benefits, sick employees must show that they contracted the disease while on the job. The executive order refers to that as a “causal connection between employment and the disease.”

Legislative leaders had been negotiating whether or not to ask for a special session. The issuing of the executive orders eliminated the immediate necessity for a special session.

Several legislators said that the orders struck the right balance between competing interests, while avoiding the risk of a “runaway” special session.

Other legislators preferred holding a special session because the pace of reopening Arkansas for business as usual requires making difficult choices and allowing spirited public debate. A legislative session is the proper venue for that kind of debate and compromise.

The president of the Senate said that while protecting businesses, the executive orders would not allow a free pass to bad actors. Small businesses like barber shops, hair salons, nail salons and fitness centers could be permanently shut down. The expense of defending themselves from a frivolous lawsuit, “could be the final nail in their coffin,” he said.

In order to claim the presumption that it has not acted recklessly or wilful, businesses must substantially comply with public health directives.

The chairman of the Economic Recovery Task Force has said that the group advocated some form of liability protection to reduce uncertainty for businesses trying to reopen.

During Phase Two, restaurants may seat up to 66 percent of their capacity. Gyms and fitness centers must still screen participants to prevent people with symptoms from entering.

On July 1, nursing homes and long-term care facilities may allow up to two visitors to a single resident. Visitors must be screened, and must wear masks.

The decision to reopen nursing homes to visitors was based on widespread testing of residents and staff in every facility in Arkansas. So far, more than 13,000 residents and staff have been tested and less than 1 percent have tested positive.

June 12, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – A federal judge upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection procedures used in Arkansas for carrying out the death penalty.

A group of inmates on death row had challenged the protocol used for capital punishment, arguing that it violated constitutional prohibitions against cruel and unusual punishment.

A federal judge for the Eastern District of Arkansas denied the inmates’ claims and wrote that evidence presented during a trial last year did not prove the drugs used for lethal injection created a substantial risk of severe pain.

Arkansas has 30 inmates on death row. All are men, 15 are white, 14 are African-American and one is Hispanic. The last time the state carried out capital punishment was in April of 2017, when four inmates were executed by injections of three drugs.

Before the executions in 2017, the previous execution occurred in 2005. There was an even longer gap between executions, from 1964 to 1990, because of rulings by the United States Supreme Court.  During that gap, the legislature approved Act 774 of 1983, making lethal injection the method for execution.

In 1990, Arkansas became the 14th state to execute an inmate since the 1976 Supreme Court ruling that once again allowed states to carry out capital punishment. The high court had ruled in 1972 that the death penalty was cruel and unusual and therefore prohibited under the Eighth Amendment.

The Arkansas inmates who unsuccessfully challenged Arkansas lethal injection protocol cited the Eighth Amendment.

One of the inmates executed in Arkansas in 1990 originally had been sentenced before Act 774 of 1983 took effect, thus he was allowed to choose his method of execution. He chose the electric chair. The other inmate executed in 1990 was the first to die by lethal injection.

The first drug injected is midazolam, a sedative. The second is vecuronium bromide, a paralytic drug. The third drug, potassium chloride, stops the heart from beating.

Attorneys for the inmates argued that the first drug injected, the sedative midazolam, does not always sedate a person deeply enough for them to not feel pain. Witnesses at the trial last year testified that they had seen one inmate moving and making sounds during his lethal injection.

The judge noted that the published side effects of midazolam include muscle tremors and involuntary movement. Also, the judge wrote that not all witnesses agreed on what they had observed during the lethal injection.

Witnesses at the trial had observed executions by lethal injection in Arkansas and in other states, both with and without midazolam.

Lottery ticket sales

The Arkansas lottery broke a record for ticket sales in the month of May when $52.8 million in scratch off tickets were sold.

For comparison, in May of 2019, vendors sold $32.5 million in scratch off tickets.

Most of the proceeds from lottery ticket sales are returned as prizes, but $8.6 million of the total amount was designated for college scholarships.

The lottery director noted that most vendors have remained open during the pandemic. The state’s casinos, as well as movie theaters, concerts and sporting events, had to close. Also, gasoline prices are relatively low.

June 5, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – State revenues have gone down because of the economic consequences of the coronavirus outbreak, but not as much as Arkansas budget officials had feared.

In early April the Department of Finance and Administration lowered its official forecast for Fiscal Year 2021 because so many businesses were required to close and so many Arkansas residents suddenly became unemployed.

Later in April the legislature approved state agency budgets for Fiscal Year 2021 based on that revised economic forecast.

Based on tax revenue collected in May, that revised forecast was very conservative. Sales tax collections provided an example of hoping for the best while preparing for the worst. Also sales tax collections in May were down 2.8 percent compared to the previous year, they were still 8.5 percent above the April forecast.

June 30 marks the end of Fiscal Year 2020 and Fiscal Year 2021 begins on July 1. Monthly revenue reports are an accurate gauge of economic activity in Arkansas.

Sales taxes collected on the purchase of motor vehicles and general retail sales tax collections were higher than expected in May.

Individual income tax collections reflect the health of the state’s labor market. Those revenues were above forecast in May by 1.3 percent, but that was mainly due to the changing of the deadline for filing. In order to give taxpayers some relief during the outbreak, Arkansas postponed the deadline for filing state individual income taxes from April 15 to July 15.

Tobacco taxes in May were down 1.1 percent from a year ago, and gaming taxes from casinos were zero, because they were closed in April to prevent the spread of the coronavirus. Taxes collected in April were supposed to be remitted in May. Last year, gaming taxes on casinos collected $6.2 million in May. Taxes on alcohol were down 14.6 percent from the same month in 2019.

Help for Hospitals

Federal funding has helped the state provide crucial services during the coronavirus outbreak. For example, a steering committee appointed by the governor recently recommended spending $109.6 million in federal funds to help Arkansas hospitals.

The CARES Act Steering Committee recommended also that $250 million be put in a reserve fund, to be available in October or afterward.

CARES stands for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act. Arkansas stands to receive about $1.25 billion from the act. To date, the steering committee has allocated $439 million in CARES Act funds.

The aid to hospitals is for expenses such as enhancing protection of patients, visitors and staff to prevent the spread of Covid-19. Also, the funding can be used for improved technology, education, training and preparations.

The hospitals can use the money only for activities for which there is no other source of payment. As one top official said, the hospitals cannot double dip.

The steering committee is considering requests to help local governments and higher education institutions. It also is working on proposals to improve access to broadband Internet in rural areas.

It has allocated money for state prison units to purchase protective equipment, such as masks. State prisons have been hard hit by the coronavirus because so many people are together in enclosed spaces.

May 29, 2020

LITTLE ROCK –More than 10,500 Arkansas businesses have been approved for grants to reimburse them for the expenses of protecting the health of employees and customers.

The grants are worth up to $100,000, and the total amount of approved grants is about $115 million. They were made available through the Ready for Business Program.

Based on a list provided by the Arkansas Commerce Department, 202 businesses qualified for the maximum grant of $100,000.

The department received 12,234 applications, but 201 were withdrawn or determined to be ineligible.

About 2,500 applications lack paperwork and can still be approved if missing items, such as tax forms, are submitted.

Federal funding was made available in Arkansas as part of a national effort to restore the economy from the negative effects of business closures and layoffs caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In mid-May the legislature voted to allocate $147.7 million to the Ready for Business program. The governor appointed a steering committee, composed of legislators and administration officials, to recommend how best to use the $1.25 billion that Arkansas received from the federal CARES Act. That stands for the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act.

Businesses that receive a grant can spend it on supplies such as protective equipment like masks, no-contact thermometers, hand sanitizer stations and cleaning products. They can purchase machines that allow a monetary transaction that requires no contact between the customer and the clerk.

At least 15% of grant recipients must be businesses owned by women or minorities. The Secretary of the Commerce Department said that approved businesses should see checks deposited in their bank accounts within the week.

A state senator on the steering committee said he would like to see some of the CARES Act money be put in a reserve fund.

Another senator on the steering committee noted that Arkansas is obligated to spend CARES Act funding before December 30. If a vaccine is not available before then, it raises the question of whether Arkansas can spend money now from the CARES fund in order to secure future supplies of the vaccine when they do become available. State health officials will look into the wording of the federal funding bill to get an answer to that question.

Food Aid for Children

Financial help is available for families whose children were getting free or reduced-price meals when schools were closed because of the coronavirus pandemic.

For each child who was enrolled in the lunch program, the family will receive $319. If the family was enrolled in SNAP, the food stamp program, the money will be added to their EBT during the last week of May or first week of June.

If the family was not enrolled in SNAP, the state Department of Education will provide the Department of Human Services with the family’s address, which was on file in the children’s school. DHS will mail an EBT card to the family’s address in June.

The payment will be made only to families enrolled in the free or reduced-price school lunch program when the health emergency was declared and schools were closed. It is a one-time payment, meant to help low-income families who have had to pay for their children’s meals after schools were shut down.

May 22, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – In June the Senate Education Committee will hear a report on the effect that public schools have seen due to the recent widespread requests for waivers from education standards.

Almost every school district in Arkansas operates with some sort of waiver granted by the state. More than 1,000 public schools, in which 97 percent of the state’s students are enrolled, operate with some sort of waiver. They are in 229 of the 235 school districts in Arkansas.

The most common waiver allows districts flexibility in scheduling the opening day of the school year in August. In fact, all 229 districts with waivers have the waiver that allows flexible scheduling, which enables them to better align their first semester with winter break.

When legislators and consultants study the impact of waivers on public school standards, they will not include a study of flexible scheduling. It is so widespread that comparisons are impossible.

When you remove flexible scheduling waivers from the picture, in the current school year Arkansas has about 500 schools in 118 districts operating under a waiver of education standards.

The most common waivers release schools from state mandates regarding the licensing of teachers and library media specialists.  Other common waivers allow schools flexibility in the area of teacher salaries, curriculum and class sizes. Also popular are waivers from state requirements setting the number of hours a student must complete in order to receive credit for taking a class.

The increase in the number of schools seeking waivers from education standards is directly related to the inception of charter schools in Arkansas.

In the 1990s, the legislature approved the creation of charter schools. So-called conversion charters, created by legislation in 1995, are operated by traditional school districts. Open-enrollment charter schools were created in 1999 and are run by non-profit organizations and universities.

When the state Board of Education approves their charters, they are granted certain waivers from statewide education standards. At the same time, however, charters are expected to use innovative strategies that improve educational opportunities, and many charters teach students who do not do well in traditional school settings.

Two recent laws have spurred the explosion in waivers sought by traditional public schools. Act 1240 of 2015 allowed a district to request waivers that are held by charters within that district’s borders. Act 815 of 2019 expanded that provision to allow public schools to seek any waivers that have been granted to any charter in Arkansas.

The Senate Education Committee analysis basically will focus on two areas. One areas is the impact, if any, that waivers have made on student performance. The other area is the financial effect waivers have made on districts that claim them.

Historically, state aid to school districts has been distributed without regard for any waivers that districts hold. That has been the case even though some waivers release schools from requirements that cost money and for which the state provides funding, such as limits on class sizes and requirements to offer a library media program.

The Senate Education Committee is studying data on waivers compiled by legislative staff and by a private consulting firm.

May 15, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Disruptions in the food supply chain affect more than the quantity of products on the grocery store shelves. They have forced Arkansas cattlemen and farmers to make financial decisions today that will affect the supply and demand of food over the coming months and years.

The impact of the coronavirus outbreak on meat supplies was the topic of a recent meeting of the Senate and House Committees on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development.

They heard from top officials in the University of Arkansas System’s Division of Agriculture. Also, they heard from a representative of the Arkansas Cattlemen’s Association.

First of all, the university’s vice president for agriculture emphasized that consumers should always keep in mind that the coronavirus does not come from any food products.

The speakers discussed erratic fluctuations in prices of meat; some increased supply and some increased demand at different stages of the supply chain.

For example, at the beginning of the coronavirus outbreak, some consumers were panic buying and there was little or no meat on grocery shelves. That drove up demand.

Next, government orders shut down or severely limited the restaurant and food service industry. That drove down demand significantly, because about half of the nation’s beef supply had been bought by restaurants.

Another set of issues affecting cattlemen resulted from bottlenecks at processing plants caused by labor shortages and shut downs. Outbreaks of Covid-19 among employees have caused bottlenecks in the supply chain for beef and pork processing plants.

The drop in broiler chick placements will hurt poultry growers, because they will be able to raise fewer flocks during the coming year.

Arkansas cattle are mainly cows and calves that are sold and sent to feed lots in other states. Feed lots are keeping calves longer because of the bottleneck at processing plants, which is causing a glut upstream in the supply chain.

At the beginning of March, cattle producers saw a drop of $88 a head for 550-pound calves. Other cattlemen and some sale barns have to navigate legal issues with processing plants, which no longer want delivery of cattle which they have contracted to buy.

When prices drop, cattle growers often have to reduce the size of their herds. Those decisions will affect the long-term supply of beef in months and years to come.

The solutions discussed included debt relief for producers who have fixed loans that need to be paid, no matter what disruptions the coronavirus causes.

The cattlemen on the committee discussed legislation to set up a state inspection system for meat, allowing local Arkansas producers greater access to local markets. Tennessee is the only neighboring state that does not have its own system of state inspectors.

State inspections would not be a “silver bullet,” the Cattlemen’s Association spokesman said, but it would benefit Arkansas producers by expanding their markets and creating a buffer from negative trends that disrupt the beef industry on a national scale.

A senator on the committee said he would sponsor legislation setting up a system in which state inspections take the place of federal inspectors.

May 8, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas is gradually opening up businesses and public activities, under careful monitoring by public health officials to avoid bringing on a second wave of the coronavirus.

The governor announced that church services may resume, as long as the congregation wears masks and everyone stays at least six feet from each other.

Although places of worship were excluded from the governor’s executive order on March 26 that limited public gatherings, most pastors have been complying with the spirit of that order. Churches have stopped holding services in their sanctuaries and many have set up worship services online. Some have been holding services outdoors.

The Health Department strongly recommends that churches continue to have services online. In all denominations, elderly people make up a large percentage of a typical congregation. Here are Department’s guidelines:

Churches that hold services indoors must require everyone to wear masks, with the exception of children under 10. For them it is optional, and face masks for children under two are prohibited under Centers for Disease Control guidelines.

Preachers, worship leaders and singers can remove their masks while they are singing and while they are addressing the congregation. They should stay at least 12 feet from other people when they’re not wearing masks.

Families may sit together, but keep six feet from other groups. Individuals must keep six feet from other people.

Any “meet and greet” events and serving of refreshments should be outside.

Congregants who participate in Holy Communion should only remove their masks while actually consuming the Elements.

Refrain from using items touched by a lot of people, such as hymnals, prayer books, collection plates and communion chalices.

Refrain from having people come forward to a common area for services like a communion or blessing. Do not hold youth classes or offer child care.

Have plenty of hand sanitizer available. Post signs telling people not to enter the building if they have had a fever higher than 100.4 degrees in the past two days, if they have had shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, and if they have had contact with someone in the past two weeks who has Covid-19.

In related news, the Health Department moved up by a week the date on which some non-urgent dental work can resume, from May 18 to May 11.

Also, recreational visitors from out of state can once again book hotel rooms in Arkansas, unless they are from particular “hot spots.” Those are New Orleans, New York, New Jersey, Connecticut and foreign countries.

The National Park Service will re-open the Buffalo National River for floating and hiking on May 15. However, Lost Valley Trail will remain closed.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will begin phasing in the opening of campsites along the Arkansas River, beginning May 20.

Barber shops and hair salons have been allowed to open for business, although with restrictions to protect the health of customers and staff.

Tattoo parlors and nail salons are also allowed to open again.

May 1, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The next few weeks will determine whether Arkansas moves forward or backward on the way to re-opening businesses.

The governor and public health officials announced that state parks could once again accept overnight visitors, and restaurants could begin serving dine-in meals. However, they may not simply open their doors to customers – a lengthy list of restrictions will apply.

Customers must maintain social distancing. For example, a group at one table must be at least six feet from customers at another table. Restaurants may only seat a third of their total capacity at one time. Customers must wear a face mask until their food arrives.

If the restaurant has a bar, it must remain closed. Entertainment areas also will remain closed, so there will not be live music during this phase of re-opening.

Restaurants cannot offer self-service, so there will not be any buffet lines. Groups of more than 10 customers will not be allowed. Staff will wear masks, and wash their hands frequently.

Staff must wear gloves, which they must wash the gloves or change them frequently. Wearing the same pair of gloves for long periods of time is the same as not wearing them. Staff will be screened daily for fever.

Tables must be cleaned and disinfected after each meal. Customers are encouraged to call in their orders ahead of time and make reservations.

The limited re-opening of restaurants will begin on May 11.

To help restaurants and other businesses purchase the protective equipment they will need in order to re-open, the state has begun a new grant program called Arkansas Ready for Business. It will be administered by the Arkansas Department of Commerce.

One goal is to help businesses with the costs of opening again, and another goal is to reassure consumers that it will be safe to visit the re-opened businesses.

On May 15, Arkansas residents will be able to camp overnight at state parks in self-contained RV’s. State parks can re-open lodges and cabins for rental.

The parks will also open their museums, gift shops and restaurants. Exhibits, golf pro shops and marinas also will open. At all facilities, limited attendance restrictions will apply, as well as social distancing requirements.

The facilities will be open only on weekends, so that staff has time to disinfect during the week. Popular trails at Pinnacle Mountain, Devil’s Den and Petit Jean must remain closed.

Announcements on the planned re-openings of gyms, barber shops, beauty parlors and churches were scheduled soon after those on restaurants and parks.

Voting places

The secretary of state will make $4.7 million in federal funds available to counties to help them cope with problems caused by the coronavirus outbreak. For example, counties may need to hire additional poll workers and rent additional space at polling places, so that they can spread out voting machines.

Also, poll workers will use more cleaning supplies and disinfectants. Voting officials anticipate that many people will choose to vote with absentee ballots. That will increases costs for postage and envelopes.

Counties also expect additional costs to communicate with voters about changes in voting procedures.

April 24, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – When Arkansas makes it past the peak of the coronavirus outbreak, restrictions on businesses and social interactions will be loosened carefully, always with the goal in mind to prevent a second wave of the pandemic.

The governor has announced that May 4 is the target date for some loosening of restrictions. He said that one of his priorities is for elective surgeries to become available again. Hospitals and clinics have put off elective surgeries because so many of their labor and resources have had to be dedicated to diagnosis and treatment of people with Covid-19.

Two groups appointed by the governor have been working to hasten the return to more normal business and social activities in Arkansas.

One group is called the Arkansas Economic Recovery Task Force. It has more than two dozen members whose purpose is to jump start the economy while remaining safely within public health guidelines.

The other group is composed of medical and public health professionals, and its duty is to expand our capacity to test for Covid-19.

Public health experts have expressed concern that if governments loosen social distancing requirements too soon, a second wave of the coronavirus could erupt. The balancing act for authorities is to get people back to work while at the same time protecting their health.

In order to boost economic activity, it’s essential to have more comprehensive data on the prevalence and spreading of Covid-19, the governor said.

As of mid-week, more than 29,000 Arkansas residents had been tested for Covid-19

Contract tracing is critical for controlling the spread of the virus. That means quickly testing and diagnosing it, and tracing the people who have been in contact with the carrier. Contract tracing are the basis for effective quarantines and shelter-at-home policies.

Around the world, the hot spots are those locations where people gathered in large groups and contracted the virus, without knowing of their exposure.

In Germany and France, public health investigators now know that people got infected unknowingly during Lenten church services. Closer to home, people attending Mardi Gras contracted the virus and spread it to their communities before it was widely known how much the virus had spread.

The economic task force includes members from the faith community, in recognition of the number of Arkansans who are attend church regularly and for whom worship is more important than other social activities deemed essential by government officials.

Unemployment benefits have been a lifeline for many, but the surge in applications threatened to overwhelm staff at the Division of Workforce Services. Procedures were streamline and hours were lengthened so the division could more promptly process applications.

Also, the division built a new web site to handle applications. It is at this Internet address: ARunemployment.com

In related news, 27 rural hospitals in Arkansas will share $10 million from the Community Development Block Grant program to help them maintain medical services through the pandemic.

Facilities will each receive from $250,000 to $500,000. Also, the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences will receive $500,000 for its statewide telemedicine network.

April 17, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature completed the 2020 fiscal session in record time, approving a balanced budget that funds state government spending of $5.68 billion.

An additional $212.2 in spending is authorized in the event that economic activity rebounds from the slump caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Tax revenue goes up and down, depending on the health of the economy.

Arkansas operates under a balanced budget law called the Revenue Stabilization Act, which prioritizes spending categories and guarantees the state will balance its budget at the end of every fiscal year. If revenue declines, spending is cut proportionately.

The most essential state services are in Category A of the Revenue Stabilization Act. For the fiscal year that begins July 1, there will be five categories. They are A, A-1, B, C and D.

The $212.2 million in spending that has been authorized in case the economy rebounds is in Category D.

Category A is by far the largest, with authorized spending of $5.3 billion. The next category, A-1, has $184 million in authorized spending. Categories B and C each authorize $91 million in state agency spending.

In late March the state’s top budget officials put in motion a series of spending reductions because of the sudden and severe economic slump caused by the coronavirus. They reduced the official forecast for the current fiscal year by about $353 million, to a total of $5.38 billion.

The total for the previous fiscal year was $5.62 billion.

The Medicaid program, which is administered within the state Human Services Department, is authorized to spend $9 billion, although the vast majority of that comes from federal matching funds.

A change in the federal match rate will help Arkansas balance its budget while maintaining Medicaid services. Previously, federal funding accounted for about 71 percent of Arkansas Medicaid spending, but for the remainder of this year the match rate will go up to 77 percent.

Arkansas received good news from federal Medicaid officials. The state’s request for a waiver was partially approved, which means that Medicaid funds can be spent on supplemental pay for nursing home staff and others who care for people who are elderly or who have disabilities.

Supplemental pay will be more for workers at a facilities where a resident has tested positive for the coronavirus. As of last week, 28 Arkansas nursing homes had at least one case.

Supplemental payments are available to nursing homes, ARChoices, personal care providers, Area Agencies on Aging, assisted living facilities, hospice providers, children’s extensive support waiver providers for supported living services, and agencies that provide care outside of institutional settings for people in their homes.

Federal approval of the Medicaid waiver was very important because Medicaid pays for the majority of long-term care in Arkansas. Also, Covid-19, the potentially serious illness associated with coronavirus, is especially hard on senior citizens and people with certain chronic health conditions.

Staff who are eligible for the supplemental pay include nurses, nurse aids, respiratory therapists, personal care aides and home health aides, direct care workers and assistive personnel.

A similar plan for supplemental pay is being developed for hospital direct-care workers.

April 10, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The sudden and severe economic downturn caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus means that the 2020 fiscal session will be the most difficult one for legislators since Arkansas voters first voted to establish fiscal sessions 12 years ago.

Usually, legislators focus on the details, rather than the broad outline of state agency budgets. They work on budget details within the framework of an official forecast, which over the years almost always calls for steady growth in revenue.

For example, from 2008 to 2018, state revenue increased by 35 percent, an average of 3.5 percent a year. During that 10-year period there was plenty of debate and political back-and-forth among legislators, but the disagreements were about details, not the overall forecast.

A simplified analogy is that every year the legislature builds a house, and on average it is 3.5 percent larger than the previous year. Every year the debate is how large the rooms will be. Human services, public schools, higher education and prisons compete to get the largest rooms.

In the past, national health care reform mandated that the legislature increase the relative size of the human services budget. In previous years the legislature had to enlarge the relative amount that the state spent on public education, because of settlements of school finance and desegregation lawsuits.

More and more, the war on illegal drugs creates public pressure to spend more on prisons and law enforcement.

The legislature must balance the competing demands for state dollars in order to balance the state budget every year. Unlike the federal government, Arkansas does not operate on deficits.

The task of balancing the state budget was made more difficult last week when the Department of Finance and Administration lowered its forecast for state revenue for next year.

That’s why the governor asked the legislature to help trim next year’s budget by $205 million while maintaining essential services. Those cuts come after state agencies were told that revenue would decrease by about $353 million in the current fiscal year, which ends on June 30.

The governor said that his priorities will be health, public education, Medicaid, prisons and law enforcement. The governor also proposed keeping some money in a flexible reserve fund, so that the state can plug any unexpected gaps in agency budgets that may arise.

During fiscal sessions, only budget bills are considered. There is a parliamentary mechanism for introducing a non-budget bill, but it sets a high bar. Sponsors must pass a resolution in each chamber by a two-thirds majority in order to even introduce a non-budget bill.

Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2008 to set up fiscal sessions in even-numbered years. In odd-numbered years legislators meet in regular sessions. They are longer and much busier because in addition to budget bills, legislators consider non-budget bills on issues affecting most aspects of society.

During the fiscal session legislators are taking precautions to prevent any spread of the coronavirus.

Health technicians checked the temperature every person entering the Capitol. Most legislators are wearing face masks and trying to keep a distance of at least six feet from each other.

Members of the House of Representatives meet in the basketball arena of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock so they can socially distance from each other.

April 3, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas state parks will be open only during the daytime, in order to prevent the spread of coronavirus among dense gatherings of visitors at trailheads and campsites, state officials announced.

Also, state officials and legislators joined in requesting that federal authorities close the Buffalo River National River, because so many out-of-state tourists were gathering there. “The trail heads are overrun with vehicles from every state in the country, including states with hot spots of covid-19,” the letter from local legislators said.

According to a count on a single day, 60 percent of visitors to the Buffalo River were from out of state. The prevalence of out-of-state visitors goes against the efforts of medical professionals trying to prevent the spread of Covid-19, the respiratory illness caused by coronavirus.

Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses. The new version that is spreading across the globe is called “coronavirus disease 2019,” which has been abbreviated to COVID-19. It can cause severe symptoms and cause death, but it also may not cause any symptoms.

The secretary of the Arkansas Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism said that 28 other states had closed overnight access to parks.

Also, several popular trails have been closed. They are the Cedar Falls Trail and the Cedar Falls Overlook in Petit Jean State Park, the east and west Summit Trails at Pinnacle Mountain State Park and the Fossil Flats Mountain Bike Trail and the Woody Plants Trail at Devil’s Den State Park. More closings can be expected.

Being outside is encouraged by public health officials, but you must maintain a safe distance from other people. Ultraviolet rays from the sun degrade many viruses, the Secretary of Health said.

However, gathering outdoors is as unsafe as gathering indoors. That’s why beaches have been closed. Popular music festivals and sporting events have been postponed or canceled, to avoid dense groupings of people.

State park rangers will have authority to disperse gatherings of people, and to issue citations for parking illegally.

The Secretary of Commerce said that personnel in the Workforce Services Department had been realigned to better handle the flood of applications for unemployment insurance. The rate of applications had averaged 1,000 to 1,500 a week, but has spiked to about 30,000 in a single week.

State revenue dropped dramatically due to the sudden downturn in economic activity. In late March the official revenue forecast for the current fiscal year was reduced by $353 million.

The filing date for state income taxes has been postponed to July 15. Also, the Department of Finance and Administration has suspended penalties for motorists who are late renewing their car tags.

The Human Services Department is now accepting documents by email, and is setting up drop boxes in the lobbies of local county offices. This is to help people applying for ARKids, food stamps (SNAP) or Temporary Employee Assistance, and people who need to provide additional documentation for other benefits.

Applying in person for benefits will take longer because of statewide restrictions that allow only 10 or fewer people at any one time in the lobby of a county office.

March 27, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature convened in special session to address potential revenue shortfalls, resulting from the sudden economic downturn caused by the outbreak of the coronavirus.

Applications for unemployment insurance had averaged about 1,500 per week. After so many businesses closed to prevent any further spread of the virus, more than 18,000 applied over a two-week period.

The sharp increase in job layoffs caused sales tax and personal income tax revenue to go down. Another decrease in state revenue is predicted to result from the extension of the filing deadline for taxes, from April 15 to July 15.

In his call for the special session, the governor noted that extending the tax deadline would cost the state millions of dollars this fiscal year, but it was the right thing to do to provide relief to taxpayers.

Budget officials predicted that revenue would be short by $353 million because of the slowdown in economic activity, combined with the extension of the tax filing deadline. June 30 is the final day of the fiscal year.

Arkansas operates under a balanced budget law, known as the Revenue Stabilization Act, which prioritizes state agency spending. When revenue drops, spending by the state government drops proportionately. Unlike the federal government, the state does not borrow to pay for budgeted programs, a practice commonly known as deficit spending.

The state has reserve funds because it has consistently approved very conservative budgets.

In order to protect vital services provided by the state Health Department and medical programs in the Human Services Department, the legislature voted on a transfer of money from a reserve fund to operating accounts. The reserve fund has $173.6 million.

Legislators took unique precautions during the special session in order to maintain social distancing. They did not all sit in their usual desks in the Senate chamber, but sat further apart than usual. Some senators participated from the public galleries.

The House of Representatives had more difficult challenges, because there are 100 representatives compared to 35 senators. The House convened in the basketball arena of the University of Arkansas at Little Rock, which is large enough that representatives and essential staff could keep at a safe distance from others. It has seating for 5,600 people.

The hospitality and service industries have been hit hard. The state has closed DeGray Lake Resort State Park, Mount Magazine State Park, Petit Jean State Park and Queen Wilhelmina State Park.

Barbers, hair salons and gyms have been closed. Church services are being video streamed, because health officials strongly advise against any gathering of more than 10 people.

The Department of Workforce Services has waived the one-week waiting period that had been required of laid off workers before they could apply for unemployment, to accelerate the payment of claims. However, due to the spike in claims, be prepared to wait when you file a claim.

The Board of Nursing and the Medical Board are accelerating their licensing processes, so that the next generation of medical providers can get to work faster.

Banks have been notified that some regulations will be modified, to encourage them to restructure loans to troubled businesses.

March 20, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – To cushion the financial impact of the coronavirus outbreak on working families, the state has streamlined the process of applying for unemployment insurance.

The Department of Workforce Services, under orders from the governor, will waive the one-week waiting period that had been required of laid off workers before they could apply for unemployment. The waiver will accelerate the payment of claims.

Another step ordered by the governor was to waive the requirement that applicants seek another job for 30 days. This waiver applies only to workers laid off from businesses that have been forced to close temporarily.

A third waiver of rules provides that unemployed workers will not have to apply in person. They can apply online or by telephone. Search for ezarc.adws to find the Workforce Services Department web page that lists the items you’ll need to file an unemployment claim.

In numerous other states, public officials have mandated the closing of restaurants and bars. In Arkansas restaurant dining rooms, bars and gyms have been closed. Restaurants can still serve take-out meals.

The state is setting up a program to provide bridge loans for small businesses, to help them stay open through the outbreak. The state will use $12 million in block grant money and as much as $4 million from its quick-action fund, which normally is used to recruit industry.

Under order of the state, the three casinos in Arkansas have closed until the end of March, affecting hundreds of employees. The casinos are in Pine Bluff, Hot Springs and West Memphis.

Concerts and shows are being canceled throughout Arkansas, and the cancellation of college sporting events has a ripple effect through the economy.

Universities and colleges are switching to online classes. Graduation ceremonies have been postponed.

That reduces demand for ancillary student services near campus, many of which are provided by private sector businesses. Dry cleaners, printing shops with copy machines, pizza joints, fast food restaurants and entertainment venues are all affected.

The Arkansas State Dental Association recommended that dentists postpone seeing patients until after March 27, if the appointments are for non-urgent care.

Arkansas is among the many states that have closed schools temporarily. Students and teachers are maintaining course work online, which highlights the need for high speed broadband access across the state. Internet connections are transmitting more data than they usually do.

Of the state’s 2,000 child care centers, about 800 have shut down. Centers that care for children from low-income families that remain open through March 27 will be reimbursed at a higher rate for the children who receive vouchers, which are a form of federal assistance.

The Department of Human Services (DHS) will suspend the renewal process for child-care vouchers for 30 days. It also will temporarily waive limits on capacity for providers.

The food stamp program, also called the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) will suspend the work requirement through the end of April.

If people apply for food stamps because they lost their jobs due to the coronavirus outbreak, DHS will speed up its decision on their eligibility.

March 13, 2020

LITTLE ROCK –Pay raises have been proposed for direct care employees at the state’s five centers for people with multiple disabilities.

They live in the facilities, which are known as Human Development Centers, or HDC’s. Residents receive treatment, therapy and education. The range of services is comprehensive, because of the special needs of the 900 people who live in the residential homes.

The five HDC’s are in Jonesboro, Arkadelphia, Warren, Conway and Booneville.

Administration of the facilities is by the Developmental Disabilities Division, a part of the largest state agency, the Department of Human Services.

The Division is proposing significant salary increases for direct pay staff. They will receive free training toward certification as a certified nursing assistant, and the Division also will pay for any testing and application fees they incur. By December of this year, they will be required to have the CNA certificate.

Base pay will increase from $22,000 to $26,000 a year. For supervisors it will increase from $26,000 to $32,405.

Non-direct care staff, such as workers in the laundry, cafeteria and maintenance crews, will see their pay go up to the minimum wage of $11 an hour, when it takes effect January 1, 2021. Non-direct care staff also will have the opportunity to earn a CNA certificate at no cost.

The Division also proposes to raise salaries of licensed practical nurses at the HDC’s.

The facilities have seen huge turnover among staff. The director of the Division said that turnover averaged more than 100 percent at the five HDC’s.  The work is difficult, and if the salaries are comparable with fast food work it’s difficult to keep employees.

Also, high turnover is disruptive for the residents being treated at the HDC’s. They respond to treatment better when they know the staff and the staff knows them.

The proposed pay raises have not yet been approved by the legislature.

Lottery Sales

Lottery ticket sales for the first eight months of this fiscal year are down from last year. That’s important because revenue from the state lottery pays for college scholarships, after prizes to winners have been awarded.

The head of the lottery attributed the decline in lottery sales to the lack of an enormous jackpot. In past years, lottery sales in Arkansas have been boosted because of interest created in huge jackpots in national lotteries like Mega Millions and Powerball. Arkansas participates in those national lotteries.

Other factors were the opening of a new casino in Pine Bluff and the expansion of gambling establishments in Hot Springs and West Memphis. Also, Mississippi now has a lottery that participates in Mega Millions and Powerball.

Lottery ticket sales in counties near Mississippi saw double-digit decreases, compared to the first eight months of last year. Jefferson County, home of a new casino, had a 10 percent drop in lottery sales.

About $94.6 million will be awarded in scholarships to about 33,000 college students if people buy as many lottery tickets as estimated by higher education officials.

Some lottery officials want the state to consider adding new varieties to lottery games, such as keno. However, that idea has drawn opposition from key senators who point out that keno was not part of the promotional campaigns for the original lottery amendment when it was approved by voters in 2008.

March 6, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature has begun budget hearings in preparation for the 2020 Fiscal Session, which convenes on April 8 and is scheduled to last a month.

On the first day of hearings the governor presented a balanced budget proposal for next fiscal year, and the administration’s official economic forecast for the coming year.

The proposed budget would increase spending from the state’s general revenue fund by 1.5 percent, which is relatively low compared to previous years.

It would result in a surplus of $54 million at the end of the 2021 fiscal year.

Of particular interest to sheriffs and county officials is the governor’s plan to increase reimbursements to county jails for holding state inmates, when state prison units are too full. The current rate is $30 per day per inmate and the governor would increase that to $32.

Other highlights in the law enforcement categories of the budget are the proposal to set up a training school for state troopers for $1 million, and to add $2.5 million for operations of the four crisis stabilization units created last year.

The units are an alternative location for police to take people suffering from a mental health crisis, rather than jail. They are treated and staff make sure they take their medications, which often is not the case if they are taken to a local jail.

The budget proposal would spend $2.6 million to add 175 beds to community correction facilities in Texarkana and West Memphis.

In addition to prisons, the other major spending categories in the state’s general revenue budget include Medicaid, human services, public schools and higher education.

The governor proposes to increase Medicaid spending by 4.98 percent, or $65 million, which is consistent with annual Medicaid increases in the recent past. However, the governor warned legislators to be prepared for larger increases in Medicaid spending next year.

General revenue comes from three main sources – sales taxes, personal income taxes and corporate income taxes.

After sending refunds to taxpayers and fulfilling other financial obligations, the state is projected to have $5.7 billion available in general revenue this year.

Another large category of state government spending is highway construction and maintenance, but it is funded from special revenues and not general revenue. Those special revenue sources are related to transportation, such as taxes on motor fuels and fees paid by heavy trucks.

One of the main issues that legislators will resolve is how much of the anticipated surplus will be put into a “rainy day” fund, or other accounts similar to a household savings account. Some of the surplus could compensate for another reduction in taxes. The legislature has approved about $250 million in annual income tax cuts since 2015.

Some of the surplus will be allocated to highways, so that the state Transportation Department can qualify for matching federal funds.

The number of Medicaid enrollees has dropped by about 50,000 over the past three years. According to the governor, the number of people getting food stamps is at a 15-year low.

The Arkansas legislature has consistently been very conservative in its budgeting. State law requires the governor to present a balanced budget. Under the state Constitution, the legislature has the power to raise revenue and approve spending measures.

February 28, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – An Arkansas success story that is attracting national attention is the expansion of computer science classes in public schools over the past five years.

In the 2015 session, a bipartisan group of legislators approved Act 187, the governor’s proposal to make computer science courses available in every Arkansas high school. Since then, enrollment has jumped from about 1,000 students in computer courses in 2015-2015, to almost 10,000 students this school year. More than 1,000 students took multiple computer science courses.

The number of female students has risen 1,179 %, from 223 to 2,852. This is significant because it demonstrates our commitment to breaking obsolete stereotypes about gender roles.

Advanced placement tests are one area in which the commitment to improving computer science is evident. In the 2017-2018 school year, 31 students scored a 5, which is the top level. A year later Arkansas students showed a 29 % increase, with 40 students scoring a five.

Over the same period, Arkansas had a 30 % increase in students scoring a 4 on computer science advanced placement classes, from 46 to 60.

According to a state Education Department report, there are 500,000 computer jobs available nationwide, but only 64,000 college graduates to fill those jobs. The situation in Arkansas is similar. In 2015 there were 1,750 available computer jobs, with an average salary of $68,900 a year, and only 250 computer science graduates to fill them.

Within the field of computer science, an especially fast growing area is cybersecurity. Median hourly wages for occupations in computer fields is about $38 an hour, while within the specific field of cybersecurity it is almost $46 an hour.

Public colleges and universities in Arkansas are adding 22 cybersecurity programs to their curricula.

Developing robots and applications for mobile telephones are other career paths for graduates of computer sciences.

Grants are available for teachers to add computer science to their certification, and last year more than 5,200 teachers, counselors and principals received some level of computer science training.

More than 225 teachers are certified in computer science, up from about 20 in 2014.

The increase in certified teachers means that the vast majority of students in computer science classes are in a classroom and have face-to-face time with teachers, rather than in virtual classes. According to the Education Department report, “that’s great news, because even tech-savvy students need accessible, invested teachers.”

Testing for Lead in Drinking Water

The federal Environmental Protection Agency has awarded the Education Department $450,000 to test for lead in the drinking water of schools and pre-schools.

Public health experts say that children are more vulnerable to the negative health effects of lead in water, such as behavioral problems and slowness in learning. The EPA says that there is no acceptable level for lead in water.

Lead can get into drinking water from corroded links and faucets, and from the solder used to connect segments of pipe.

Municipal drinking water is tested for lead, but Arkansas has not specifically tested schools for lead in years. In 1986 Congress prohibited lead in new pipes and fixtures that are used for human consumption.

February 21, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Last year the legislature voted to conduct an extensive review of the operations of the Arkansas Department of Transportation, to identify areas where improvements could be made.

Act 298 of 2019 mandates that the Legislative Council hire an independent consultant to perform the review. The consultant is Guidehouse, of McLean, Virginia. It will focus on the bidding procedures, purchasing methods and overall finances of one of the largest agencies in state government. It will recommend legislation for the General Assembly to consider during the 2021 regular session.

One purpose is to ensure responsiveness to the needs of citizens. In other words, if members of a community are concerned about the number of accidents on a particular stretch of highway, such as a sharp curve with a low shoulder, their concerns should not be ignored.

In September, Guidehouse submitted to the Department a lengthy and detailed list of requests for data. Since then, Guidehouse has also been talking to key staff at the Transportation Department.

Staff spent 3,220 hours working with Guidehouse to provide the requested data. As of December, the consultant had uploaded more than 1,150 files. The consultants made a progress report to legislators.

The Transportation Department has 3,724 full time employees working across the state, with an annual budget of $425.4 million, according to the Guidehouse report.

Legislators also received a detailed report from the Transportation Department itself, on the progress of 34 projects that were under construction at the beginning of the year. Each project will cost more than $10 million to complete.

The largest project, in terms of cost, is a $187 million widening of Interstate 30 in western Saline County, where Highway 70 turns off toward Hot Springs. The interstate is being widened from four to six lanes for 5.9 miles. It is scheduled for completion in late 2022.

The second largest project is in Prairie County, along Interstate 40. It is a $100 million project to replace the bridge over the White River.

The estimated completion date is the middle of 2020, but delays may result because of disputes between the Department and building contractors. High water and heavy rains interfered with construction schedules. Contractors and the Department do not agree on who should foot the cost of those delays.

The director of the Department, Scott Bennett, announced that he intended to step down on March 20. He worked at the Department for 32 years and has been its director since 2011.

At a recent meeting of the Highway Commission, he outlined the projects that the Department has worked on during the past ten years. They amount to 1,100 projects covering 5,600 miles of highway and costing $7.2 billion.

Last year the legislature approved two highway-funding measures. One measure, Act 416, will generate an estimated $95 million annually.

The other measure is a resolution that refers to voters a proposed constitutional amendment. If it passes in the November general election, it will provide an additional $205 million a year to the Department by permanently extending the current half-cent sales tax dedicated to highways and bridges.

February 14, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Every month in Arkansas, an average of 20 to 30 young people get in trouble with the law and are placed in the custody of the Division of Youth Services.

Two years ago, those teenagers were much more likely to spend time in a juvenile jail. They were more likely to wait months for an initial assessment to determine where they should be placed and how they should be treated.

They were more likely to have their lengths of stay extended, sometimes for relatively minor violations. If they acted out and were punished, it often meant they were sent to a secure lockup. That meant their treatment and school work would be put on hold for an indefinite period of time.

Last year there were 30 youths who had been in the system for two years or more, even though they were not violent, they were not sex offenders and no judge had ordered an extended stay for them.

It is much different today, members of the Senate Committee on Children and Youth were told last week. The director of the Division of Youth Services (DYS) reported on the many changes in youth treatment that have been put into effect over the past two years.

The governor, judges and legislators have all participated in the changes, with the goal of reducing the number of young people who are locked up in a secure location.

Instead, more are being supervised in group homes, under what is called community-based treatment.

Before May of last year, 352 youths were in a residential facility. Now there are 235.

For example, before May of last year, 73 young people were being held in a juvenile detention center operated by a county. Now there are only six.

That is an improvement, because generally there is no treatment in detention centers, rather they are simply places where youths are held.

DYS hopes to keep the number of youths in county-run detention centers in the single digits.

Previously, when a youth was admitted into the system, his or her treatment plan was a “cookie cutter,” meaning that all youths went through the same plan. Now, each youth has an individualized plan written by a team of specialists. Parents are allowed input. Substance abuse treatment is more common.

When a youth gets in trouble now, DYS takes about 20 days to complete an assessment. Before, they often waited months in a county-run detention center before they were placed in a setting where they could get treatment.

Typically, youth now stay in DYS custody for three to six months. Each youth has a set date on which he or she will be released, and that date can only be changed by the treatment team with approval from the director of DYS.

Now, the treatment team monitors a youth’s progress. That did not happen previously.

Act 189 of 2019 has made a difference in the number of young people sent to lockups. It requires all juvenile judges to use a “validated risk assessment system,” when placing offenders.

The intention is to make sentences uniform across the state, and eliminate discrepancies that have existed. In some parts of Arkansas, juveniles were sent to a lock-up for minor offenses. In other parts of the state, juveniles who committed the same minor offenses were ordered to complete community service and alternative programs.

February 14, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Every month in Arkansas, an average of 20 to 30 young people get in trouble with the law and are placed in the custody of the Division of Youth Services.

Two years ago, those teenagers were much more likely to spend time in a juvenile jail. They were more likely to wait months for an initial assessment to determine where they should be placed and how they should be treated.

They were more likely to have their lengths of stay extended, sometimes for relatively minor violations. If they acted out and were punished, it often meant they were sent to a secure lockup. That meant their treatment and school work would be put on hold for an indefinite period of time.

Last year there were 30 youths who had been in the system for two years or more, even though they were not violent, they were not sex offenders and no judge had ordered an extended stay for them.

It is much different today, members of the Senate Committee on Children and Youth were told last week. The director of the Division of Youth Services (DYS) reported on the many changes in youth treatment that have been put into effect over the past two years.

The governor, judges and legislators have all participated in the changes, with the goal of reducing the number of young people who are locked up in a secure location.

Instead, more are being supervised in group homes, under what is called community-based treatment.

Before May of last year, 352 youths were in a residential facility. Now there are 235.

For example, before May of last year, 73 young people were being held in a juvenile detention center operated by a county. Now there are only six.

That is an improvement, because generally there is no treatment in detention centers, rather they are simply places where youths are held.

DYS hopes to keep the number of youths in county-run detention centers in the single digits.

Previously, when a youth was admitted into the system, his or her treatment plan was a “cookie cutter,” meaning that all youths went through the same plan. Now, each youth has an individualized plan written by a team of specialists. Parents are allowed input. Substance abuse treatment is more common.

When a youth gets in trouble now, DYS takes about 20 days to complete an assessment. Before, they often waited months in a county-run detention center before they were placed in a setting where they could get treatment.

Typically, youth now stay in DYS custody for three to six months. Each youth has a set date on which he or she will be released, and that date can only be changed by the treatment team with approval from the director of DYS.

Now, the treatment team monitors a youth’s progress. That did not happen previously.

Act 189 of 2019 has made a difference in the number of young people sent to lockups. It requires all juvenile judges to use a “validated risk assessment system,” when placing offenders.

The intention is to make sentences uniform across the state, and eliminate discrepancies that have existed. In some parts of Arkansas, juveniles were sent to a lock-up for minor offenses. In other parts of the state, juveniles who committed the same minor offenses were ordered to complete community service and alternative programs.

February 7, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – During the first week it was available, about 600 Arkansans took advantage of a new online service to schedule the driving portion of their test to get a driver’s license.

They were able to save time and avoid the uncertainty of waiting in line for the skills portion of the test at the nearest State Police office where tests are administered.

Legislators heard about the new feature during a meeting of the Joint Committee on Advanced Communication and Information Technology.

The committee was updated on broadband availability in rural areas and cybersecurity, and heard reports on data sharing between state agencies to improve efficiency in providing services. For example, streamlined data sharing can allow state offices that provide welfare to determine quickly whether an applicant receives unemployment insurance benefits and child support.

The committee heard from the general manager of the organization that operates inter-active services for numerous state agencies. Some of those online services require the user to pay a transaction fee, and some are free.

He reported that the State Police had initiated the feature of allowing people to schedule a driving test online, and he specifically described the frustrations of parents who wait for an hour or more with their teenaged children. The frustrations are worse if a lot of people show up on the same day, the time for taking the tests runs out and they have to come back another day.

“To put it mildly, the experience is not modern,” he told the committee.

Now, people who have passed the written test can make a reservation online to take the driving test, using their smart phone or a personal computer. They can choose a date, a location and a time for taking the test, and they are given a reservation number.

Also, they will get a text or an email message reminding them of the appointment.

Based on past numbers of test takers, the new service could benefit 230,000 Arkansas residents this year. It will be a free service.

The State Police administer the tests for new drivers’ licenses. People who have been driving for years and have to renew their licenses must visit or contact a Revenue Office, which is part of the Department of Finance and Administration.

As part of a nationwide effort to improve security, Arkansas is issuing “REAL ID” drivers’ licenses and identity cards. They will be required for entrance on a domestic flight, or into a federal facility, by October 1, 2020.

The purpose is to prevent terrorism and identity theft.

To get a REAL ID, you must prove your identity with a passport or birth certificate. You must prove your identity with a document such as driver’s license, a concealed carry permit or a military ID. You must prove your Social Security number with an original card, a tax form or a pay stub. You must prove your address with utility bills and bank statements.

If your name has changed, you must provide linking documents such as a marriage certificate, a divorce decree or a court order.

The Arkansas DFA website has a list and a worksheet to help you gather the documents you need, before you go for a REAL ID driver’s license at your local revenue office.

January 24, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Levee Task Force has completed its final report, with recommendations on how to pay for maintenance and repairs, and how to best gauge the current condition of levees.

The average levee along the Arkansas River is 70 years old, but in some areas there is little or no regular activity to maintain them, evaluate the need for repairs or levy assessments on property owners who benefit from them.

In fact, the 26-member task force characterized people’s attitudes toward levees as “out of sight, out of mind.”

The task force made 17 recommendations in four major areas. First, we need a much more detailed analysis of current conditions. Making an accurate assessment is not simple. Some levees are privately owned and protect a relatively small area. Others can be 50 to 60 miles long, and are compromised by roads that have been cut in them over the years. Many are overgrown or were abandoned long ago.

The task force limited its definition of a levee to a structure designed to protect property and people from a 25-year flood, which has not been abandoned and which is operated by a federal, state or local government body. Local entities include levee districts.

It can be difficult to determine whether or not a levee has been abandoned. The task force included in its inventory an important levee although it is in poor condition and has no functioning board of citizens or levee district to supervise maintenance.

Local boards are important, to evaluate the condition of levees and collect assessments from property owners for maintenance. Federal funding is often the major source of revenue for levee repairs, but those funds won’t be allocated if the local board is not active.

For that reason, the legislature enacted new laws allowing vacancies on levee boards to be filled. It’s also why the task force recommended that all levee district board positions be filled, through procedures set out in state law.

State aid should be a financial incentive for levee districts to sign up for federal programs that provide the bulk of funding for repairs. In order to qualify for those federal dollars, the boards of levee districts need to maintain their active status over the long term. The areas protected must be assessed accurately.

The task force recommended that the state GIS Office continue to work with county officials and levee districts to help them draw up-to-date maps showing the boundaries of levee districts and the property that is protected by levees.

If it makes sense to merge two or more levee districts, that decision should be made at the local level, the task force recommended.

All levee districts should use a standard form when they monitor and report on the condition of levees.

In related development, the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission approved $8.8 million in grants for 14 local districts.

The task force report cautioned that even after levees are repaired and meet federal standards, they might be breached by historic levels of flooding. The 2019 floods in Arkansas were the result of heavy rains in Oklahoma and southeast Kansas that were 400 to 600 % higher than normal. Runoff from those storms was estimated to be four times the capacity of Oklahoma reservoirs.

January 10, 2020

LITTLE ROCK – Thanks to legislation enacted in 1993, Arkansas continues to experience a competitive market for workers’ compensation insurance.

The state Insurance Department performs an annual study of the market and reports to the Senate Committee on Insurance and Commerce. According to the latest study, “Arkansas’s voluntary workers’ compensation market would have disappeared and many employers would have found themselves unable to afford workers’ compensation coverage, facing the choice of either closing down their business or operating outside the law, had Act 796 not become reality.”

To emphasize its conclusion, the report states that “the impact of the Act on workers’ compensation premiums is clear and significant. Prior to its enactment rates were increasing significantly.”

In the two years immediately before the legislature approved Act 796 of 1993, rates increased 15 % and 18 %.

However, the year in which the act passed was the first time in 10 years that workers’ comp rates did not go up.

The act created a division within the Insurance Department assigned to investigate fraud, and set financial penalties for fraudulently making workers’ comp claims. In 2005 the division’s authority was expanded to investigate all forms of insurance fraud, and it was renamed the Criminal Investigation Division of the Insurance Department.

Workers’ comp fraud makes up four % of the total number of insurance fraud cases investigated by the division.

Since 1993, when the investigation division was created, it has referred 166 cases to local prosecutors. Those referrals resulted in 123 convictions and three acquittals. The remaining cases were not acted on by prosecuting attorneys.

Arkansas companies can get workers’ comp from two categories. The most affordable plans are in the voluntary market. The other plan is an assigned risk pool for companies that do not generally qualify for the more affordable coverage available on the voluntary market.

The Insurance Department annual report concludes that without the changes made by the legislature in Act 796 of 1993, it is doubtful that a voluntary market would still exist in Arkansas. The assigned risk pool, which is typically considered the market of last resort, would likely have become the Arkansas workers’ comp market of “only resort,” the insurance officials reported.

Deficit Spending

The state’s chief fiscal officer recently appeared before a Congressional committee in Washington, D.C. He briefed federal officials on the history of the Arkansas balanced budget amendment, and how state government can operate efficiently under a balanced budget every year.

The U.S. government is expected to run a deficit of $984 billion this fiscal year.

Arkansas voters approved Amendment 20 to the state Constitution in 1934, which prohibits the state from borrowing money without approval by citizens in a statewide vote. Amendment 20 was placed on the ballot by the 1933 legislature.

In 1945 the legislature approved the Revenue Stabilization Act, which prioritizes state spending. If revenue declines due to a slowdown in the economy, state agency spending is reduced accordingly.

January 8, 2020

Over the past decade, greater numbers of Arkansas children have been diagnosed with disabilities that require them to receive education.

Consequently, Arkansas public schools are spending greater amounts of money on special education.

Last year there were almost 64,000 students with a diagnosed disability in Arkansas public schools. That is 13.4 percent of the state’s total student enrollment.

Arkansas school districts spent $458 million on special education services, or about $7,382 per pupil with a disability. In the 2012-2013 school year, Arkansas schools spent $412 million on special education for 54,000 students.

Those are the specific costs of services, and don’t include costs that schools incur to educate all students, such as utilities and administrative salaries.

Last year the equivalent of 3,788 full time employees worked as special education teachers in Arkansas.

Schools get revenue from local, state and federal sources. The state provides funding for an average of 29 special education teachers for every 500 students enrolled in the district.

There are 12 categories of disability used to determine a student’s eligibility for special education. They include autism, vision and hearing impairment, speech language impairment, traumatic brain injury, intellectual disability and emotional disturbance.

There is a category titled specific learning disability that includes dyslexia and developmental aphasia. It represents the largest category of disability, and applies to 31 percent of the students in special education.

About 25 percent have a speech language impairment, about 12 percent have intellectual disabilities and about 8 percent receive special education services because they are on the autism spectrum.

Except for the category of children with multiple disabilities, all other categories have shown increases, with autism growing the most over the past few years. The number of students diagnosed with autism has gone up 55 percent since 2013. The increase is attributable to an increased awareness among educators and others of the characteristics of autism.

The growth in children diagnosed with dyslexia has followed a similar trend. In 2014, for example, 957 students received therapy for dyslexia. In 2014 only 89 school districts and one charter school reported results from screening for dyslexia.

Last year, 251 school districts and charter schools screened for dyslexia and more than 23,000 children received therapy.

Act 1294 of 2013 required districts to screen every student in kindergarten through second grade for dyslexia.

Just like all other students, children with disabilities must take standardized tests like the ACT Aspire. Last year 12.2 percent of students with disabilities scored at the “ready” or “exceeding” level in math. That compared to 52.5 percent of students without disabilities.

Last year legislators worked on changes to a category of special education known as high-cost or catastrophic occurrences. They happen when services for an individual student are extraordinarily higher than what is regularly provided in state funding categories.

In the 2019 regular session, the legislature approved Act 877 to appropriate $13.2 million for special education high-cost occurrences.

January 3, 2020

The Legislative Council endorsed a plan for two southeast Arkansas counties to contract with a private company to build and operate a 600-bed prison.

Spokesmen have said that the company intends to begin construction this year, for between $15 million and $18 million. The facility will hold 500 state inmates and the remaining space will house offenders from Bradley and Drew Counties who have been arrested and are awaiting trial.

The two counties have an agreement with LaSalle Corrections of Ruston, Louisiana, to build the prison and operate it.

The Legislative Council, a committee of legislators that oversees state government operations in the interim between sessions, signed off on the agreement during its December meeting. The contract is for close to $8.2 million a year, between the state Department of Correction and Bradley and Drew Counties. It is for 20 years, for a total cost to the state of $163 million.

The state will pay about $44 a day per inmate, which is less than the cost of securely housing inmates in state prison units. Bradley and Drew Counties will pay less because they will not provide as many services to county inmates, such as drug rehabilitation and job training to prepare inmates for release into the free world.

Arkansas had two private prisons, for about three-and-a-half years in the late 1990s. Wackenhut Corrections Corporation operated two units near Newport, the Grimes Unit and the McPherson Unit.

In 2001 the state Correction Department took over the two units, after Wackenhut decided against renewing its contract. The Grimes Unit housed youthful male offenders and the McPherson Unit housed females. Both units had 600 beds and both opened in 1998.

Other reports reviewed by the Legislative Council provide a glimpse into the everyday workings of state government. For example, the Department of Finance and Administration has a division of Child Support Enforcement. It is authorized under state law to suspend the licenses of parents who fail to comply with court orders to pay child support.

In the first six months of 2019, the division suspended 4,159 drivers’ licenses and 360 vehicle tags. It also suspended 1,033 hunting and fishing licenses.

Those suspensions were among 95,000 child support cases enforced by the state agency. In the first six months of the year, more than $145 million in child support was collected and passed on to custodial parents.

The Forestry Division is within the state Agriculture Department. It’s directed by the state forester, who sends regular reports to the Legislative Council. In November, the division helped rural fire departments suppress 52 wildfires that burned 668 acres.

That was significantly below the average number of November wildfires reported in the past decade. Over the past 10 years, the average for November has been 94 fires burning 1,585 acres.

The division administers federal grants to about 1,000 rural fire departments, and helps train and equip their members.

The division also works with landowners to develop new strains of timber. For the first five months of the fiscal year, Forestry sold 885,000 pine seedlings and 6.9 million hardwood seedlings.

December 27, 2019

The new year is an election year, and thanks to legislation approved during the regular session earlier this year, the primaries in Arkansas will take place on Tuesday, March 3.

Traditionally, Arkansas holds its primaries in May. The legislature passed Act 545 to move up the date, in the hope that presidential candidates will pay more attention to Arkansas voters. In past election years, both major political parties had usually completed their selection of presidential candidates by May.

So as not to mix electoral politics with governing, Act 545 also moved the starting date for the 2020 fiscal session. Usually, in even-numbered years our fiscal sessions begin on the second Monday in February. Now, in years with a presidential primary on the ballot, the fiscal sessions will begin the second Wednesday in April.

Another change in election law will affect organizations that want to place issues on the ballot, such as proposed constitutional amendments or initiated acts. In the past, those groups would get approval of the ballot title from the state attorney general, who would make sure that the ballot title accurately reflected the contents of the measure.

After the attorney general approved the ballot title, the groups would gather signatures on petitions to have their proposals placed on the ballot. Sometimes the attorney general rejected several proposed ballot titles before finally approving one.

Under Act 376 of 2019, the state Board of Election Commissioners will replace the attorney general’s office as the entity that approves ballot titles. Advocacy groups will submit lists of signatures to the Board at the same time as they submit a proposed ballot title. If the Board rejects either the ballot title or the sufficiency of signatures, appeals to the state Supreme Court will be extradited.

Act 376 increases the criminal penalties for petition fraud, changing it from a Class A misdemeanor to a Class D felony.

At least three issues will be on the November general election ballot because they were referred by the legislature during the 2019 regular session. All three are proposed constitutional amendments.

One would permanently extend the current half-cent sales tax that generates revenue for highway projects. It is a temporary tax that is due to expire in 2023, unless Arkansas voters approve the ballot issue.

A second proposed amendment would change the current term limits provision in the state Constitution. It would impose a 12-year limit, but the limit would be for consecutive service and not for a lifetime. Thus, a legislator who served 12 years would have to leave office. But under the proposed amendment, the lawmaker could run again after sitting out for four years.

The third measure, if approved, would change the process for citizens’ groups to have measures placed on the November ballot. It would move up the deadline for submitting signatures to January 15. Currently, the deadline is in early July.

It would no longer allow groups an additional 30 days to collect more signatures. Now, if 75 percent of submitted signatures are valid, they get a 30-day extension. The amendment also would raise the bar for the legislature, which can refer up to three proposed amendments in every regular session. It would require a 60 percent majority in each chamber to adopt a joint resolution with a proposed amendment. Now, the legislature can refer a proposed amendment to voters by a vote of 51 percent of each chamber.

December 19, 2019

The Arkansas legislature had a very productive year in 2019. During the regular session lawmakers balanced the budget of state government while cutting taxes and reducing the number of state agencies.

Act 182 of 2019 is an income tax reduction that will save Arkansas taxpayers $97 million a year when fully in effect. About 579,000 taxpayers, those with net taxable incomes greater than $38,200, will see a reduction in their income taxes.

The act also simplifies the tax tables used for calculating your personal income taxes.

Act 808 of 2019 increases the homestead property tax credit by $25, from $350 to $375. It will benefit more than 716,000 property owners by $12.5 million a year.

Act 822 of 2019 lowers tax rates for businesses over the next few years. By 2023 it will save them $40 million a year.

The act also extends a company’s ability to carry forward net operating losses. The longer carry forward period will gradually extend to 10 years. Now it is five years. When the new provisions are in full effect, the savings to Arkansas businesses will grow by an additional $70 million a year.

Act 910 of 2019 restructured state government, reducing the number of cabinet-level agencies from 42 to 15. Savings resulting from more efficient operations of state government are estimated to be $15 million.

The state collected more than $7.1 billion last year in sales taxes, income taxes and special taxes on tobacco, alcohol and gambling.

The total available for services was about $5.6 billion after the state made refunds and bond payments, and set aside $360 million for the Educational Excellence and Educational Adequacy funds.

The legislature approved a highway program in two parts. Act 416 of 2019 levies a new wholesale sales tax on gasoline and diesel, which will result in an additional 3 cents a gallon on gas and 6 cents on diesel. The new state rate for gasoline will be 24.5 cents a gallon, and for diesel it will be 28.5 cents.

When fully in effect, in Fiscal Year 2021, this new wholesale sales tax will generate $59 million a year for state highway projects and $12.6 million each a year for both cities and counties. Increases from one year to the next will be limited to 0.1 percent per gallon.

Also, $35 million from new casino taxes will be transferred to state highway projects. The act increases annual registration fees on electric vehicles to $200 and hybrid vehicles to $100. This will generate $1.9 million a year for state highway projects.

The other component of the highway program is Issue One, which the legislature referred to the November general election ballot.

If Arkansas voters approve Issue One, it would make permanent the half-cent sales tax for highway projects that voters approved in 2012. It raised the state sales tax from 6 to 6.5 percent and originally was promoted as a temporary, 10-year tax. It took effect in 2013 and is scheduled to expire in 2023.

The half-cent will generate $293.7 million a year. Cities and counties will each receive $43 million, and the state Transportation Department will get the remaining $205 million each year.

December 13, 2019

Canada and Mexico continue to be the top destinations for Arkansas exports, according to the 2019 report by the World Trade Center of the University of Arkansas.

Last year Saudi Arabia was third on the list of foreign destinations, thanks to a 486 percent increase in sales of bombs, mines and ammunition from Arkansas. The spike in sales is attributable to a missile contract between Saudi Arabia and Lockheed Martin, which has a plant in Camden.

The value of bombs, mines and ammunition exported from Arkansas jumped from $169 million in 2016 and $79 million in 2017 to $463 million in 2018, according to U.S. Census Bureau data cited by the World Trade Center. Of that total, $376 million were shipped to Saudi Arabia.

Civilian aircraft continues to be an important component of Arkansas exports, although its value dropped in 2018 compared to the year before. In 2017 Arkansas firms exported $1.5 billion of civilian aircraft overseas, and in 2018 the value of those exports dropped to $995 million.

Agricultural exports from Arkansas were valued at $3 billion last year. Almost half of those products were shipped to countries in the Western Hemisphere — 23 percent went to Mexico, 15 percent went to Canada and 10 percent went to Haiti.

Hong Kong and the United Kingdom each bought 5 percent of the agricultural products shipped from Arkansas in 2018.

In all, Arkansas exported $6.5 billion worth of goods to foreign nations in 2018.

Exports represent an essential part of the state’s economic foundation. For example, about 26 percent of all Arkansas jobs are supported by international trade. That represents about 350,000 people.

Canada and Mexico are easily the two most important export markets for Arkansas. Businesses in the two countries purchased $2 billion of Arkansas products last year, as well as $276 million in services.

Canada and Mexico account for more than a third of all Arkansas exports, and trade with the two countries support more than 120,000 jobs in Arkansas.

Growth in trade with Mexico has increased dramatically in the past few years, although not as much as trade with Saudi Arabia. In the 25 years since the United States signed the North American Free Trade Agreement, exports from Arkansas to Mexico have increased by 732 percent. The value of our exports to Mexico were estimated to be $870 million in 2018.

Ranked by the value of exported products, Arkansas is 37th in national rankings of states.

Other important categories of Arkansas exports are transportation equipment, chemicals, machinery and paper. The most valuable farm products exported from Arkansas last year were soybeans, rice, broiler meat and cotton.

The jobs supported by international trade are mostly in small businesses – about 80 percent. According to business groups, those jobs generally pay more and are more secure than jobs in other areas.

After Canada, Mexico and Saudi Arabia, the greatest amount of Arkansas exports were shipped to France, China and South Korea. The United Kingdom and Belgium followed.

December 6, 2019

More than 2,000 people attended a series of meetings that the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Retirement held in 11 cities across Arkansas earlier this fall.

Estimates are that about half of those in attendance were members of the state Teacher Retirement System.

Many of them expressed concerns about changes approved in 2017, which retirement officials concede were the result of difficult decisions. Retired teachers are living longer, so the system can expect to pay out more in lifetime benefits.

Also, the return on the system’s investments could no longer be maintained at 8 percent. When the assumed rate of return was lowered to 7.5 percent, it necessarily meant a lengthening of the system’s period of unfunded liability.

Another change made in 2017 was to lower a benefit stipend from $75 to $50 a month. That took effect last July. There was no change to the cost of living adjustment of 3 percent a year. According to the director of the Teacher Retirement System, no changes are expected in the foreseeable future in either the stipend or the COLA.

The Arkansas retirement system is 80 percent funded, which is better than the national average of 72 percent. The amortization period is 28 years. Retirement experts recommend keeping the period below 28 years, and the Arkansas system is aiming for 18 years.

The market value of the system’s assets, as of June 30, was $17.6 billion, compared to $16.7 billion on June 30, 2018.

A question asked during the committee meetings was whether to expect legislators to try to merge the various public retirement systems. The audience was told that no bills have been filed or proposed. Arkansas has a separate retirement system for judges, state employees, highway department employees, police and firefighters.

As of September, the teacher system was paying monthly benefits to about 50,000 retirees. Their annual benefits are a significant contribution to the local economies of Arkansas cities and towns, because they receive a total of about $1.2 billion a year.

According to a presentation made at a recent Board of Trustees meeting, their average annual benefit is $23,558.

Of the retirees, 28 women and three men were older than 100. There were 976 retirees between 90 and 99 years old, of whom 803 were women and 173 were men. The oldest retired teacher is a woman who is 108 years old.

Revenue Report

For the first five months of the current fiscal year, the state’s net general revenue is up 4.5 percent over the same period last year.

One contributor to the healthy increase was personal income tax collections. They were up 5.9 percent, which means more people are working and getting paid more.

Another factor has been an increase of 3.1 percent in sales tax collections, which means people are spending more.

Revenue forecasts are used to set budgets for state government agencies. So far this fiscal year, revenue is 3.8 percent above official forecasts.

November was a good month for the Arkansas economy, judging by revenue statistics. Net general revenue for November was 6.1 percent more than last year and 3.7 percent above the forecast.

November 29, 2019

The legislature created the Arkansas Trauma System 10 years ago, with passage of Act 393 of 2009.

The trauma system directs emergency responders to the closest hospital that provides the care needed by the trauma victim. That is not always the closest hospital.

It’s possible that an ambulance carrying a severely injured person would need to bypass a level four facility, in order to more quickly arrive at a level one facility that can immediately treat the trauma.

There are 62 facilities in the system. Six are level one, four are level two, 18 are level three and 34 are level four.

The six level one systems can handle the most severe trauma cases. Two are in Little Rock, two are in Memphis and two are in Springfield, Missouri. The level two hospitals are in Little Rock, Springfield, Hot Springs and Fayetteville.

The levels do not indicate the quality of care provided by the hospital. It indicates the resources available, for example, whether or not they have a neurologist on call.

Establishing the trauma system involved much more than coordinating emergency response teams with the closest hospital that offers appropriate care. The system has distributed grants to hospitals and firms that provide emergency medical services. More than 7,000 nurses have been trained in trauma care over the past 10 years.

For anyone who has suffered a traumatic injury, the system has possibly saved their life. Studies indicate that the Arkansas trauma system has lowered the mortality rate for traumatic injuries in Arkansas by 50 percent since 2009.

In many cases the system has made care more accessible and convenient for victims and their families. For example, since 2009 the trauma system has evaluated 3,565 burn cases, and one percent of the victims are now transferred out of state for further treatment. Ten years ago 12 percent of burn victims needed to be transferred out of state.

Hospitals and public health agencies maintain extremely complex medical records, such as images of X-rays and ultrasounds. The trauma image repository can send images to a facility, before the arrival of the patient, to eliminate the need for duplicate testing and to speed treatment.

Arkansas was one of the last states in the country to set up a statewide trauma system, but it’s now the first and only state to operate an ongoing “preventable mortality review.” More than 820 trauma cases have been closely reviewed, with the goal of improving care by streamlining protocols practiced by health care providers, and requiring that trauma care guidelines be more rigorous.

The trauma system has purchased 611 radios that operate under the Arkansas Wireless Information Network. The radios allow ambulances to stay in communication with emergency rooms in areas where there is no cell phone service, and in periods when cell service is down. This is vitally important should a natural disaster occur, or an event that affects massive numbers of people in a large area.

The Arkansas Trauma System is operated out of the state Health Department. On a regular basis it reports to the Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor.

November 22, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas is one of 16 states whose legislators are working to help families gain access to medical care for a debilitating disorder that can afflict children after a bout of strep throat.

It is a neuroimmune disorder commonly known as PANDAS, which stands for pediatric autoimmune neuropsychiatric disorders associated with streptococcal infections. Symptoms may include trouble sleeping, loss of math skills and handwriting skills and severe separation anxiety.

Some parents have reported that the symptoms became so severe that they had difficulty recognizing their child.

Related to PANDAS is pediatric acute-onset neuropsychiatric syndrome, known as “PANS.” It is a clinically defined disorder characterized by the sudden onset of obsessive-compulsive symptoms or eating restrictions, accompanied by two or more symptoms of acute behavioral deterioration or motor and sensory changes.

Antibiotics and psychiatric care can relieve the severity of the symptoms, but they can be very costly. A foundation that supports families who have been afflicted says that medicine can cost from $5,000 to $17,000 per dose.

Consistent health insurance coverage is important for affected families, due to the high cost of treatment. With that in mind, the legislature approved Act 878 of 2019, which takes steps to make health coverage in Arkansas inconsistent.

The act creates a panel of health care professionals, educators, insurance representatives and elected officials. Under Act 878 the panel will report to the joint Senate and House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committees at its December meeting.

A similar panel created by Texas lawmakers issued its first report in September.

The report will include standards for diagnosing and treating PANS and PANDAS. When the standards are in place, health insurance companies can use them to set coverage amounts. According to language in Act 878, legislation that mandates coverage will be considered at the next regular session.

The act encourages the governor to include mandatory insurance coverage on the call of a special session, if he calls a special session before the 2021 regular session convenes.

Act 878 also charges the panel of health and insurance experts with raising awareness, in schools, in health clinics and among families. According to support groups, the disorder is often misdiagnosed.

Robocalls

Act 677 of 2019 prohibits fraudulent telemarketers from using technology that makes your phone’s caller ID display a fake number. It passed through both chambers of the legislature without a dissenting vote. Judging by the enthusiasm with which lawmakers voted for it, it may have been the most popular bill considered during the 2019 session.

This year alone, 35 states have considered more than 150 bills or resolutions to restrict robocalls, and enacted 25 of them. The Federal Communications Commission has issued regulations that allow phone companies to do more to block robocalls. The Commission estimates that in the past six years more than 14,700 people have lost $72 million in fraudulent phone scams.

An estimated 4.5 billion robocalls were placed to Americans in September, which is more than 150 million calls a day. Of those, 46 percent were scams, 12 percent were telemarketing calls from legitimate companies, 23 percent were alerts and reminders, and 19 percent were payment reminders.

November 15, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas has made a strong commitment to making sure that children learn to read at an early age, and the federal government has recognized our efforts with a grant of $38 million to improve literacy.

The money will be sent to Arkansas over the next five years. It is the highest amount possible in the category of literacy grants distributed by the U.S. Education Department.

The state began its statewide reading initiative in 2017, when the legislature approved Act 1063. Also known as the “Right to Read Act,” it requires more rigorous teacher training in the science of literacy, especially for elementary school teachers.

Legislators followed up with passage of Act 83 of 2019. It requires school districts to follow a specific plan for training teachers in the science of literacy, and the plan must be tailored to the district’s literacy needs.

The state will use the grant to strengthen its overall literacy instruction and build a culture of reading, with an emphasis on helping children who are disadvantaged. They may be living in poverty or they may have a disability or they may need extra help learning English.

The state Education Department has labeled its literacy program R.I.S.E. That stands for Reading Initiative for Student Excellence.

Since it began in 2017, more than 6,000 Arkansas teachers in K-6 have received training in literacy instruction, and more than 3,000 teachers in K-12 have gone through intensive training in the science of reading.

Phonics is a main component of the science of reading. The focus of R.I.S.E is to provide more explicit phonics instruction. One goal is to get away from predictable texts that have lots of pictures.

Instead, instruction will focus on decoding new words, teaching students to look at words and sound them out before relying on pictures for visual clues.

Parents are encouraged to help their children build up a vocabulary of “sight words,” which are frequent words that kids memorize, often with flash cards. Examples are “the” and “me” and “from.”

The latest research indicates that it’s better in the long run to teach children to decode the phonic parts of sight words, rather than simply memorizing them. That’s because they will then learn patterns that help them decode longer words and words that are seen infrequently.

Arkansas has partnered with experts at the Tennessee Center for the Study and Treatment of Dyslexia to apply new scientific methods to our literacy programs.

As more research is completed and new methods are tested, schools will change their strategies to incorporate the most successful of them, always with the goal to improve students’ ability to learn.

In related news, 175 Arkansas schools will receive $6.7 million because their students scored in the top 5 percent and top 10 percent on standardized tests known as the ACT Aspire exams.

Schools also qualified for the rewards if their students showed significant improvement on the tests.

The amount that each school receives will depend on its enrollment. This year, a smaller school got $6,000 and a larger one received $90,000.

November 8, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – Adequately funding public schools is one of the most complex, time-consuming and important duties of the legislature.

Making it even more challenging is structuring the school funding formula to address the achievement gap between students from low-income families and those from more prosperous families. The gap refers to the lower scores made on standardized tests by low income students.

Here’s an example, based on scores made by Arkansas students on the ACT Aspire tests administered during the 2017-2018 school year. Only 30 percent of low income students scored at grade level, compared to 57.2 percent of non-low income students.

Scores in reading and math show similar achievement gaps.

The state provides bonus funding to school districts according to a formula that accounts for the number of low income students enrolled. The bonus funding category used to be called NSL, for National School Lunch, because eligibility for free and reduced price lunches indicates a student’s low income status. Now, the bonus funding is called ESA, for Enhanced Student Achievement funding.

About 60 percent of Arkansas students are eligible for free or reduced price school lunches. Schools with a higher percentage of low income students receive a higher rate of ESA bonus funding.

For example, if a district’s enrollment of low income students is less than 70 percent of its total enrollment, it receives $526 per student in ESA funding. There are 113 districts in this category.

If a district’s student body is from 70 to 90 percent low income, it receives bonus funding of $1,051 per low income student. There are 112 districts in this category.

There are 10 school districts in Arkansas in which more than 90 percent of students are low income. They receive $1,576 per low income student.

School districts are limited in how they spend ESA bonus funding. There are more than 20 approved uses, but the most common are for instructional facilitators and tutors, and for activities designed to help low income students academically. Also, districts can use the funding to hire teachers’ aides, counselors, nurses and social workers.

Last year, Arkansas schools received almost $234 million in ESA funding, which was about four percent of their total revenue.

Research indicates that students from low income families face obstacles to learning such as a lack of nutritious food, a lack of resources in the household, unsafe neighborhoods and a lack of adult role models. Generally, their parents’ academic background is poor, so the parents cannot teach and guide the students as well as parents from more prosperous families.

During a recent meeting of the Senate and House Education Committees, when legislators worked on the state’s ESA policy, they heard comments from advocacy groups that focus on improving education.

They included the Walton Family Foundation, the Walton Personal Philanthropy Group, the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation, the Arkansas Rural Education Association and the Arkansas School Boards Association.

When the legislature convenes in regular session in January of 2021, legislators will have put in countless hours on the difficult challenge of closing the achievement gap between poor students and those growing up with more advantages.

November 1, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The Higher Education Coordinating Board heard a disappointing report about the continuing decline in the number of Arkansas high school graduates who go on to college.

During a recent special meeting, staff from the state Higher Education Department reported that only 47.1 percent of the high school seniors who graduated in 2018 went on to a four-year university or a two-year college.

Elected officials, business leaders and educators have been working over the past several years to increase the number of Arkansas students who eventually earn a degree. A better-educated workforce makes Arkansas more attractive to industries that compete the best in the modern global economy.

For that reason, the relatively low college-going rate is a disappointment.

What makes the report even more alarming is that it continues a steady decline from 2014, when 51.6 of our high school graduates went on to college. In 2015 the number dropped to 50.9 percent. In 2016 it fell to 49.8 percent and in 2017 it fell again to 48.2 percent.

The enrollment decline is mainly attributable to trends at four-year universities. In 2014, the number of high school graduates who went to an Arkansas university was 31.9 percent, and that ratio has steadily declined to 28.7 percent last year.

The percentage of high school graduates moving on to study at a two-year college has gone up and down, but remained close to 16 percent.

The number going to a private or independent college has dropped slightly since 2014, from 3 per cent to 2.4 percent of high school graduates.

It is difficult to make precise comparisons between the college-going rate in Arkansas and the national rate. That’s because the Arkansas statistics don’t include high school students from private schools, only students from public and charter schools. Also, it doesn’t account for students who leave the state to attend college.

National averages, derived differently, report that about 67 percent of high school graduates go on to college. That trend has held steady for several years.

In the spring of 2018, Arkansas public high schools graduated 31,745 seniors, of whom 14,965 went to a college or university in Arkansas.

Of the almost 15,000 graduating high school seniors, almost 2,000 went to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville. Almost 1,600 went to the University of Central Arkansas at Conway and almost 1,400 went to Arkansas Tech at Russellville.

About 1,100 graduating seniors enrolled at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro, 768 enrolled at the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith and 643 at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia. Another 555 of last year’s high school graduating class enrolled at Southern Arkansas University in Magnolia.

Almost 900 went to Northwest Arkansas Community College and almost 600 enrolled at Arkansas State University at Beebe. Almost 500 went to the University of Arkansas Pulaski Tech.

Educators attributed some of the decline in college enrollment to the state’s relatively healthy economy. When jobs are available, young people tend to go to work instead of to college. Conversely, during tough economic times, more people go back to school in order to improve their job skills.

October 25, 2019

CK – The state’s child welfare agency has improved its performance over the past three years and continues to make progress, according to its most recent annual report.

The Division of Children and Family Services recruits foster parents to care for children who have no families or whose families are not able to care for them.

The number of children in foster care has been going down, from 5,196 in late 2016 to 4,285 in August of this year.

More children are being placed with relatives. For example, in 2016 relatives took over the care of 21.3 percent of the children placed in the system. That number has increased to 30.3 percent.

Another good development is that fewer children are placed in institutional settings. Now, 86.9 percent are placed in a family setting, compared to 77.6 percent.

The division’s staff can respond and get children placed more quickly than before, because additional hirings have lowered the average caseload from 28 to 19. High caseloads are an important factor driving the relatively high turnover among employees. Any reduction in average caseloads will reduce the Division’s need to continue hiring and training new employees.

In August of 2016 the Division had 721 cases in which investigations of maltreatment of children were overdue. In August of this year, there were 104.

Three years ago, there was consensus among Division staff and elected officials that foster care in Arkansas had reached crisis levels.

The governor proposed and the legislature approved funding for more employees.

At the same time, private non-profit organizations and faith-based groups became involved and were given much credit for the significant increase in the number of foster families that have been recruited since 2016.

This year’s annual report is titled “Family First Fits Us,” to emphasize that the Division’s priority is to give every child the opportunity to grow up in a family, rather than in a group setting or in residential housing.

The ultimate goal of increasing staff and resources is not to simply reduce caseloads, but to keep children in their homes. Now that average caseloads have become more manageable for frontline workers, they are better able to provide intensive services to everyone in the family.

Those services include, for example, having someone from the Health Department visit the homes of newborn babies to give classes in parenting skills to the new mother and father.

Another example is sending a social worker from a faith-based organization to spend time with families that constantly argue, with the goal of teaching them to talk and listen to each other with respect. In successful cases, decision making becomes less chaotic and stressful.

In 2018, the Division’s family workers helped about 12,000 in their homes, to prevent neglect and abuse so as to prevent the children from ending up in foster care. During the same year about 7,800 were placed in foster care.

The Division’s leadership wants to continue expanding and improving services for children in their own homes. When successful, the services avoid trauma to children and disruption of families, while breaking cycles of abuse that can linger from generation to generation.

October 18, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – Earlier this month the state Crime Lab opened a new facility in Lowell, in northwest Arkansas.

The opening will speed forensic testing and chemical analysis for law enforcement agencies in the region. It also will relieve pressure on the backlog of cases in the main Crime Lab in Little Rock and the Regional Laboratory in Hope.

Also this month, the Legislative Council’s Personnel Subcommittee approved the Crime Lab’s request to make the salary of the state chief Medical Examiner more competitive. It will be $270,455 a year. The position has been vacant since July.

The medical examiner oversees the section in the Crime Lab that performs autopsies. More than 1,500 autopsies a year are referred to the section. They are cases of sudden and unexpected deaths, caused by trauma and natural diseases. They include criminal cases, industrial accidents and motor vehicle accidents.

For comparison, Memphis also has an opening for a chief medical examiner and is paying a salary of about $300,000 a year, the Crime Lab’s director told the Personnel Committee.

The director told legislators that the Crime Lab has not yet received any applications for the vacant position. The previously posted salary had been a range, from $175,620 to $270,455.

Another job opening in the medical examiner’s section has been vacant for more than a year and a half, the director said. Other states have difficulty filling the positions because there are so few board-certified forensic pathologists in the country. The director estimated the total to be about 400.

The Crime Lab also has a DNA section, whose duty is to analyze and organize evidence from crime scenes. Staff also testify in court.

A related section collects and organizes DNA samples from convicted offenders, unsolved cases, missing persons and unidentified bodies. The data is shared nationwide to assist criminal investigations.

The use of DNA samples in criminal investigations began with the passage of legislation in 1997, but it was limited to the collection of blood samples from criminals convicted of sexual and violent offenses.

In 2001, burglary was made a crime that allowed law enforcement to collect DNA from a convicted offender. Act 1470 of 2003 made Arkansas an all-felony state, meaning samples were collected from every person convicted of any felony.

Act 543 of 2015 expanded the law to allow for the collection of a DNA sample on all felony arrests.

The Crime Lab has a section that is familiar to anyone who watches police shows on TV, or who reads murder mysteries. It is under the Firearms and Toolmarks examiner. Its main duty is to compare ammunition with firearms, for example, to determine what type of gun fired a bullet recovered from a crime scene.

The Forensic Toxicology section identifies illegal drugs, and determines whether they are a factor in suspicious deaths.

The Crime Lab has staff who take fingerprints, palm prints and foot prints. The same section identifies tire tracks and the tracks left by various types of shoes. Part of the sections duties is to enter prints into a computer-based system, where investigators can search for and compare prints compiled throughout the country.

October 11, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The annual report cards for Arkansas public schools has been released by the state Education Department, and they show improvement over last year.

More schools earned an A grade and fewer schools were labeled with an F. The number of schools getting an A went up by 11 percent, and the number of schools getting an F went down by 14 percent.

The grades are based on test scores, changes in test scores from one year to the next, graduation rates and other factors that indicate students’ academic success.

The report cards can be found on the Department’s web site. An Internet search for Arkansas and “myschoolinfo” will bring up the main page. Then you can search for individual schools and school districts.

A report card provides a letter grade and a demographic analysis of the students. For example, once you find a school and click on the button that says “Statistics,” you will get information such as the percentage of students who are in special education classes and who live in low income families.

The page lists the average years of experience of the teaching staff, and the average pupil to teacher ratio in all the classrooms.

This year, the report cards were released earlier than in past years in order to give educators time to identify problem areas and adjust their teaching strategies accordingly.

The school report cards are part of the 2019 federal and state accountability reports. They indicate that 557 schools improved test scores, and 505 schools improved weighted achievement scores. For the third consecutive year, students’ graduation rates improved.

In 2017 the legislature enacted wholesale reforms in the accountability system for Arkansas schools. Although still very reliant on standardized test scores, Act 930 of 2017 ushers in “next generation accountability” to give local districts more flexibility and to factor in more varied measures of student achievement.

Some educators express caution that giving letter grades to individual schools can create misconceptions, if parents and civic leaders focus only on the letter grade.

Numerous factors must be taken into account to accurately measure how well a school educates children. One of the most important is the socio-economic level of the students. In general, children from prosperous homes have better scores on standardized tests than children from low-income homes.

Holding schools accountable is part of the legislature’s constitutional duty to provide all children with an equitable and adequate education, as mandated by the state Constitution and affirmed by the state Supreme Court in the historic Lake View case.

Arkansas Still Leads in Mallard Hunt

According to a recent report from the United States Fish and Wildlife Service, Arkansas is still the national leader in the hunt for mallards.

Last year hunters in Arkansas shot 477,817 mallards, which not only was more than in any other state but more than the entire Atlantic flyway.

Although anecdotal evidence from some hunters indicated that it was a less productive season than usual, it is no surprise that Arkansas led the nation in mallard hunting because of the abundance of wetland habitat that mallards prefer. Also, Arkansas is geographically situated along the migration route that mallards follow when they fly south for the winter.

October 4, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The state Board of Correction has voted to pursue an agreement with Bradley and Drew Counties in southeast Arkansas to set up a private prison.

It would house 500 male inmates, as well as offenders from local county jails.

The counties have been working with LaSalle Corrections of Ruston, Louisiana, a private company that also operates the Bowie County Correctional Center in Texarkana, Texas. Arkansas pays to house state inmates at the Bowie facility, because of overcrowding in Arkansas prison units.

If the state and the two counties finalize an agreement with LaSalle, it would mark the second time that Arkansas sentenced inmates to private prisons. For about three-and-a-half years in the late 1990s, a private firm called Wackenhut Corrections Corporation operated two units near Newport, the Grimes Unit and the McPherson Unit.

In 2001 the state Correction Department took over the two units, after Wackenhut decided against renewing its contract. The Grimes Unit housed youthful male offenders and the McPherson Unit housed females. Both units had 600 beds and both opened in 1998.

The contract approved by the Correction Board is between the state Department of Corrections and Bradley and Drew Counties, and it would be for 20 years.

The two counties would work out an agreement with LaSalle, and the agreement must allow state Correction officials to inspect the private facility at any time. After a reasonable notice, state inspectors could access areas off limits to inmates.

The contract between the counties and LaSalle shall provide for GED programs and other educational programs for inmates.

The cost of operating a prison include the cost of vo-tech classes, GED programs, rehabilitation for drug and alcohol addiction and basic health care. The state is looking into the contract with LaSalle because of the potential to save tax dollars. Supporters of private prisons include legislators in both the Senate and the House of Representatives.

The question will be how inmates in the private facility are prepared for life outside prison. Critics of private prisons, including members of the legislature, have expressed concerns that private companies make profits by scrimping on staff and on rehabilitation programs.

The contract with LaSalle shall prohibit any person or company from profiting from the labor of inmates.

There are still many steps to take before Arkansas opens another private prison facility. Attorneys for all the parties must review the contracts. Reimbursement rates that the state would pay have to be determined, and the facility must be built. According to news reports, LaSalle would build the prison at its own expense.

Revenue Report

The first quarter of the fiscal year shows solid growth in the Arkansas economy. Net available revenue was up 2.9 percent over last year. Tax rates have not gone up, so the increase is due to greater economic activity.

Individual income taxes are up 4.2 percent over the same period last year, which is an indication that more people are working and getting paid more.

Sales and use taxes, which indicate how much people are spending, were up 1.4 percent over the first quarter of last year.

September 27, 2019

LITTLE ROCK –Tourism in Arkansas grew at a healthy rate last year, whether it’s measured in total spending or how many people visited the state or how many jobs are supported by the travel industry.

An official report was released detailing the role of tourism on the state economy, and the secretary of Parks, Heritage and Tourism called it a “banner year of growth for Arkansas’s tourism industry.”

Almost 68,000 Arkansas residents work in jobs directly within the travel industry, she said. More than 32 million visitors spent money traveling through Arkansas. Spending on travel grew by 4.4 percent over the previous year, bringing the total amount of travel expenditures in Arkansas to almost $7.4 billion for 2018.

Arkansas tourism officials rely heavily on data and modern technology to market the state. Nature and outdoor activities are still a staple of our marketing strategy, but for the past several years our tourism officials also have emphasized the availability of cultural experiences, such as fine restaurants, art galleries, music venues and historical sites.

A major source of revenue for marketing campaigns is the state’s tourism tax on travel-related lodging, such as hotel rooms, camp grounds and boat rentals. It generated more than $16 million in 2018.

Marketing campaigns generally focus on major centers of population in nearby states, such as Dallas, Springfield, Chicago, Memphis, Kansas City and Tulsa.

Our presence on the Internet is crucial, so that when potential visitors see a location of interest when they are “surfing the Net,” it is easy for them to make reservations and schedule activities online. Also, tourism officials try to make it simple to request a brochure.

Niche marketing focuses on motorcycle enthusiasts, Civil War buffs, birdwatchers, people interested in the history of the civil rights movement, hunters and fishermen, mountain bikers, hikers and stargazers.

A traditional staple of marketing is to educate people about the possibility of unearthing a diamond at the Crater of Diamonds State Park.

The Buffalo National River recently was designated as an international dark sky park, which means people can see the stars more clearly because of the absence of streetlights, electric signs and other types of urban lighting.

Feedback is critical, in order to determine how effectively our marketing efforts are working. Keeping up with new technologies is also important. This year podcast audio advertising will be tested, as will a campaign in Colorado aimed at mountain bikers.

It’s projected that 46 percent of advertising dollars will be spent on digital media and 54 percent on traditional media, like newspaper inserts, magazines and television.

In related news, the governor issued an executive order creating the Buffalo River Conservation Committee. It will be made up of the secretaries of the Department of Energy and Environment; Agriculture; Parks, Heritage and Tourism; and Health.

The executive order cites the ongoing need for state officials to cooperate with local property and business owners, to manage the watershed to maintain “the highest level of water quality.”

The governor also announced that $2 million was available for grants for water quality and conservation projects in the Buffalo River watershed. The state will provide $1 million and the other $1 million will be from the Nature Conservancy and the Buffalo River Foundation.

September 20, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The joint Senate and House Committees on Public Health, Welfare and Labor approved a study proposal to combat the dramatic increase in teenagers’ use of vaping products, also known as e-cigarettes.

Also last week, the President Pro Tem of the Senate released a draft version of proposed legislation to restrict and tax vaping products in the same way that smoking is restricted and taxed. The legislature should act promptly, he said, because every day more young people get addicted to vaping products.

The health committee heard reports from the state’s top public health officials on the epidemic levels of vaping among young people. The Health Secretary reported that eight Arkansans had been hospitalized. Some of the people used vaping products to inhale THC, an ingredient in marijuana.

Vaping is advertised as a way to ingest nicotine, an ingredient in tobacco that is very addictive. Although vaping is often considered a safer alternative to cigarettes, and has been marketed as a safer alternative, studies are being completed that indicate vaping causes serious damage to the lungs and the heart.

The House chairman of the Public Health Committee said that Arkansas does not have the luxury of waiting on the results of research.

Vaping products are marketed to young people by adding flavors and with names like Rainbow Drops and Cotton Candy, the committee heard. The flavor additives may be safe to eat or drink, but in vaping products they are heated and inhaled, which can cause lung damage.

The Senate chairman said she had encountered a vaping product called Lucky Charms, which is also the name of a children’s breakfast cereal.

A school superintendent said that confiscation of vaping products had risen by 420 percent over the past three years, even though the products are small and disguised to be easily hidden from teachers. They are made to look like USB drives and ballpoint pens. One coach confiscated one in the shape of a fidget spinner.

A public health official from the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences reported that in recent years use of vaping products among adults had remained constant, at the same that that use among young people had increased.

Studies indicate people who vape are more likely to have heart disease, she said.

While research is still ongoing being conducted on the long-term effects of vaping, public health officials are growing alarmed at the recent increase in acute cases. People are being sent to the hospital for vaping.

Public health officials emphasize that raising the cost of tobacco and vaping products would quickly reduce usage by teenagers, because they don’t have as much money as adults.

Because vaping is allowed in places where smoking is prohibited, a perception exists that it is an acceptable alternative. Also, there is evidence that some teenagers use vaping products and then begin smoking cigarettes. Therefore, advocates propose to restrict vaping under the state’s Clean Indoor Air Act, in the same way that smoking is restricted.

The legislative supporters of taxes on vaping predict that government will be burdened with the costs of treating chronic illnesses caused by e-cigarettes. In the same way, government health programs like Medicaid spent hundreds of millions of dollars to treat people who smoked tobacco.

September 13, 2019

In 2017 the legislature approved the creation of four crisis stabilization units (CSU), where police officers can bring people who are experiencing a severe mental health episode.

In the past, many people undergoing a mental health crisis were locked up in a local jail. Their condition often worsened, because they were not getting treatment and did not have access to medication. Jail staff were not trained to respond to their needs.

With the opening of the Craighead County CSU in northeast Arkansas, the four units authorized by Act 423 of 2017 are now open. The new units were part of the governor’s legislative agenda.

Law enforcement officers in 20 northeast Arkansas counties can bring people to the Craighead County unit, which has 16 beds.

The state’s other three crisis stabilization units are in Washington County, Sebastian County and Pulaski County.

An important provision in Act 423 expands training of police officers in how to distinguish mental health problems, and how to respond. More than 500 officers have gone through crisis intervention training.

This week the Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute is offering a nine-hour class to enhance officers’ understanding of Act 423. The institute keeps officer safety foremost when teaching policies and procedures. Completion of the class can be counted toward a degree.

Also, when new recruits are getting certified at the state’s Law Enforcement Training Academy, they take 16 hours of training in mental health crisis intervention.

The four CSU’s will alleviate some of the strain on the finances and staffing of county jails, city lockups and emergency rooms. Another goal is to decrease the number of repeat offenses among people with mental illnesses.

Teacher Retirement

The work of the legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Retirement and Social Security Systems is watched closely by thousands of Arkansas citizens. For example, the committee recently met in Hot Springs and about 300 people attended.

Teachers and public employees wanted to know about the financial health of their retirement systems, and whether there are any plans to change their benefits.

The director of the Teacher Retirement System, the state’s largest with $17 billion in assets, told the audience that the system’s board had no plans to reduce benefits. Its board would wait a few years to assess the impact of past actions that affected benefits.

Last year the Teacher Retirement System paid an average of $23,478 in benefits to 46,824 retirees.

The other major public retirement system is for people who work for the state. The Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System last year paid benefits of about $1,200 a month to 37,389 retirees.

State Revenue Report

In August state government collected $508 million in general revenue, which was $8.4 million more than budget officials had predicted.

The jump in revenue was attributed to higher than expected collections of sales taxes and individual income taxes. Tax rates have not changed, therefore the increase in collections indicates that more people are working and they are purchasing more.

September 6, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences received a grant of $4.6 million to boost its program to encourage primary care physicians to practice in rural areas.

UAMS, the state’s main medical school, has eight regional campuses around the state. They will partner with the UAMS College of Medicine and its Department of Family and Preventive Medicine.

The dean of the college noted the importance of retaining primary care physicians in rural areas, saying “Arkansas still has one of the worst physician shortages in the nation and we’re among the states projected as most likely to have serious primary care shortages by 2025.”

The rural population is relatively older, and therefore has a higher demand for medical services.

With the grant money, the college will recruit more medical students from under-served areas because they are considered more likely to return to their hometowns to practice medicine.

The college will increase the number of clinical sites available to teach medical students, and increase training and faculty opportunities at those sites.

The grant will be used also to strengthen relations with Community Health Centers, the Arkansas Rural Health Partnership, the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and Philander Smith College in Little Rock, which are historically black colleges.

The state Health Department considers 50 of the 75 counties in Arkansas as meeting the definition of an under-served area, due to the lack of health professionals available to serve the population. More than 500,000 people, or a sixth of the states’ total population, live in those areas.

Legislators working on health care recently heard a presentation from officials at UAMS and the Arkansas Hospital Association. There are 23 counties in Arkansas that do not have a local hospital and there are 39 counties with only one hospital.

Of the 105 hospitals in Arkansas, 17 are at the highest level of financial risk. The number used to be 18 until the hospital in DeQueen, which was on the list, closed.

Twenty-five counties and cities levy a tax to support their local hospital.

“Getting to a doctor is a huge challenge in rural areas,” the chancellor of UAMS told legislators.

Rural areas are in need of more trained nurses, especially in specialty fields such as critical care and labor and delivery. The shortage is expected to worsen because about a third of nurses are older than 50, and many will retire within the next decade.

One reason for the nursing shortage is a lack of faculty at nursing colleges. In 2017, according to the Arkansas Center for Nursing, 3,905 nursing students were accepted into one of the 56 nursing programs in the state while 1,954 were turned away because of a lack of faculty or clinical space.

Of the 949 faculty at nursing programs, 614 were older than 50 in 2017. Many are expected to retire within 10 or 15 years. They will be more difficult to replace because in general, faculty must have a master’s or a doctoral degree.

The number of male nurses has gone up, but only slightly. In 1960, only 2 percent of nurses were male and today the ratio is 13 percent.

August 30, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – Almost three years ago a task force of Arkansas legislators submitted its final report on how to control the growing costs of the state Medicaid program.

Since then the state Human Services Department (DHS) has adopted a series of reforms recommended by the legislative task force and the governor.

The goal was to reduce spending from projected levels and save $835 million in Medicaid costs by the end of Fiscal Year 2021. DHS administers Medicaid.

At a recent meeting of the Legislative Council, the director of DHS reported that the Department was “on track to achieve the five year savings target of $835 million.”

Every agency in state government has a stake in the issue. The legislative task force concluded that Medicaid was on an unsustainable path, even if analysts used a conservative growth estimate of five percent for the next five years.

“Medicaid in Arkansas’s annual growth of 5 % represents a pathway that requires reform, as it is the largest program in state government and on its current trajectory, threatens the future viability of other critical programs across the state,” the legislative task force reported.

For example, over the past four years state spending on prisons has grown by a total of about 9 percent, from $322 million to $353 million. In comparison, state spending on DHS has grown by 33 percent over the same four-year period, from $1.3 billion to $1.7 billion.

State funding of education is protected from budget cuts, and less vulnerable to competition for state revenue from other agencies, because the legislature is mandated by the Arkansas Constitution to support public education.

In lawsuits over state funding of schools, the state Supreme Court has upheld the constitutional mandate.

The priority placed on education funding has resulted in what legislative budget officials call the “doomsday clause.”

If the chief fiscal officer determines there are not adequate funds in the public school accounts, all other agencies would have their budgets reduced proportionately by the amount needed to restore the school fund.

Because spending on kindergarten through grade 12 is protected under the Constitution, the growth in Medicaid spending has an inordinate impact on other areas of state government that are not protected, such as prisons and local aid to cities and counties.

Also, funding of higher education is affected because it does not enjoy the same Constitutional priority that K-12 does.

Controlling Medicaid is complex, because it has many components that drive growth in spending. For example, 74 percent of traditional Medicaid claims are for people who are elderly, blind or disabled. Those categories are sometimes referred to as “high risk, high cost” and mostly fall under institutional care provided by hospitals and nursing homes.

DHS has begun controlling costs for people with developmental disabilities and mental illness, through a program called PASSE. That stands for provider led Arkansas shared savings entities. DHS pays a fixed monthly amount for each patient, and the health care companies that receive the payments are responsible for treatment.

Medicaid pays for prescription drugs, and as the task force noted that spending on the pharmaceutical component was growing faster than other medical expenses.

August 23, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – Last year 426 Arkansas residents died from a drug overdose, according to death certificates filed with the state Health Department. That is an increase in fatal drug overdoses from 2017, when 417 people in Arkansas died from drugs.

The data is from the most recent annual report issued by the Prescription Drug Monitoring Program, which is administered by the Health Department.

The program was created by the legislature in 2011 to curtail the rapidly growing abuse of controlled substances, such as painkillers and opioids. Since 2011 the legislature has steadily expanded the program’s reach.

Under state law, every time a controlled substance is dispensed to an individual, it must be reported to the monitoring program within seven days. In 2017 the legislature made it mandatory for prescribing physicians to check with the program before prescribing opioids and controlled substances.

Law enforcement, medical fraud investigators and authorities from the military and other states can access the data in the Arkansas prescription drug monitoring program. Early this year, the number of users who have access to the program went over 20,000 for the first time.

One goal is to reduce “doctor shopping” by people who abuse prescription drugs. The practice is defined as visiting multiple physicians in order to obtain numerous prescriptions for the same drug.

The program flags instances of “doctor shopping” if a patient sees five doctors and goes to five pharmacies within a 90 day period, all in order to purchase the same drug. In large part due to the flagging of this form of abuse, since the beginning of 2017, Arkansas has seen an 80 percent decrease in “doctor shopping.”

Arkansas shares data with 34 other states that also have a prescription drug monitoring program. Importantly, Missouri does not have a program and does not share data with Arkansas. All of our other neighboring states share information on prescription drugs, however.

The number of queries by law enforcement usually ranges from 180 to 190 per quarter. The number of queries from boards that license physicians, nurses and other health professionals, will vary to a greater degree, for instance, from 30 or 40 or 50 per quarter.

Queries from physicians, pharmacists and health care professionals average about 19,000 a month.

Opioids were the most widely prescribed drug in Arkansas in 2018, with 3.2 million prescriptions ordered and more than 186 million pills sold. That is a decrease from 2016, when 236 million opioid pills were sold in Arkansas.

Opioids treat pain and include hydrocodone, oxycodone and morphine.

The second most sold controlled drugs in Arkansas in 2018 were prescriptions for anxiety, panic attacks, insomnia, seizures and muscle spasms. The drugs include Xanax and Valium. More than 1.7 million prescriptions, equaling 86 million pills, were sold.

Stimulants ranked third in the top-selling list. This category includes drugs such as

Adderall and Ritalin, which are used to treat attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and narcolepsy. In 2018, more than 762,000 prescriptions were ordered, totalling 26 million pills.

From 120,000 to 130,000 Arkansans were considered chronic users of opioids in 2018 because they received 90 days’ worth of medication in a 180-day period, with gaps between usages of less than 30 days.

August 16, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – With the opening of the 2019-2020 school year, there are 26 open enrollment charter schools in Arkansas.

Two new ones are scheduled to open this year in Pulaski County.

The state Charter School Authorizing Panel recently recommended approval of an application for a new school set to open in Bentonville in 2020-2021. When it opens, it will bring to 27 the total number of open enrollment charter schools in Arkansas.

Under state law, the limit on the number of open enrollment charters in Arkansas is 34. However, it would automatically increase by five schools once the total number of charters is within two of the limit. That means the limit will remain at 34 until there are 32 charters in the state.

The original cap for open enrollment charters schools was 24. Every year there are usually several applications to open new charters, but there also are regular closings of existing schools. Financial deficits and lack of students’ academic progress are cited as reasons for several of the closings.

Charter schools are public, and receive state aid. However, they are free from many of the regulations that govern traditional public schools. The charter under which they operate is like a performance contract, which outlines the schools mission and goals, as well as how many students it will educate and how it will assess academic progress.

There are two types of charter schools. Open enrollment charters are operated by non-profit organizations, government entities or institutions of higher education. They can draw students from across district boundaries.

The second type are conversion charters, which are operated by local school districts and which can only draw students from within the district’s boundaries.

In exchange for the greater freedom from regulations, charter schools agree to oversight from the state Board of Education.

Crisis Stabilization Units

In 2017 the legislature approved Act 423 to create four Crisis Stabilization Units, where police officers can bring people who behave erratically and may need immediate treatment for mental health issues. They are to have 16 beds.

Three units are open, in Washington County, Sebastian County and Pulaski County. The unit in Craighead County is under construction.

Act 423 also provides for expanded training of law enforcement officers in how to recognize and handle people who are going through a mental health crisis. Most people are admitted for up to 72 hours, but can stay longer under extreme circumstances.

One of the main goals of the units is to keep people with mental illness out of jails, where they will not have access to medication and where their conditions are likely to worsen.

The Criminal Justice Institute, which is connected with the University of Arkansas System, is offering online courses for police officers that teaches officers how to distinguish escalating levels of danger when they encounter a person undergoing a behavioral health crisis. The course keeps the safety of the officer as the top priority.

The course is nine hours and counts towards degrees offered by the Institute. The courses teach the new protocol that police should follow when dealing with people suffering a mental health crisis.

August 9, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – Back to school in Arkansas means that more than 6,000 buses will transport 350,000 students to and from school.

It also means that motorists need to remember that it is against the law to pass a stopped school bus that has its red lights flashing. That’s when children are getting on or off the bus.

Earlier this year, the legislature increased the potential penalties for illegally passing a stopped school bus. Act 166 of 2019 raises the minimum amount of the penalty from $250 to $500, and the potential maximum penalty from $1,000 to $2,500.

August begins the annual awareness campaign in Arkansas promoted by legislators, the state Education Department, the governor, school administrators, bus drivers and mechanics and parents. It’s called “Flashing Red. Kids Ahead.”

The need for heightened awareness is driven home by the alarming results of annual surveys done by bus drivers. Those results show that way too many motorists drive by stopped school buses, and the trend is getting worse.

In April, 3,896 school bus drivers participated in a one-day survey. They represent 227 Arkansas school districts. They reported that on a single day, 884 motor vehicles illegally passed stopped school buses that had red lights flashing.

That was an increase over the previous year. Most of the violations, 711, happened when motorists passed the bus while driving in the opposite direction. Whether going in the same or in the opposite direction, the overwhelming majority of motorists passed the bus on its left side.

However, 12 motorists passed the bus on the right side, which is cause for even greater alarm because the bus doors are on the right side, and it’s the side on which children get off and on the bus.

Nationally, the statistics are just as alarming. A one-day survey of 100,000 bus drivers indicated that more than 88,000 motorists passed a stopped school bus.

Keep in mind school buses lower the overall volume of traffic because parents and guardians don’t have to drive the students to school. That keeps the family car off the road.

If you pick up your children from a school bus stop, always wait on the side where they will be dropped off, so they are not tempted to run across the street to greet you.

In 2004, an elementary school student in Bryant was killed when a motorist illegally passed his stopped school bus as students were getting off the bus.

In 2005, the legislature increased the penalties for anyone found guilty of illegally passing a stopped school bus. The stricter penalties were in legislation known as Isaac’s Law, named after the boy who was killed in Bryant. It was Isaac’s Law that was strengthened during the 2019 legislative session.

Broadband Access in Rural Areas

The governor announced a plan to fund his initiative to bring high speed Internet to all communities, called “Arkansas Rural Connect,” with $25 million.

It calls for action this year by the Legislative Council to provide $5.7 million for grants for small communities that lack Internet service. In next year’s fiscal session the legislature will consider an appropriation for the remainder of the $25 million.

The program builds on work done earlier this year by the legislature, when it approved Act 198 of 2019. The measure allows local government entities to begin their own broadband services.

August 2, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – Reading helps children avoid the “summer slide,” when lazy days can make them forget what they’ve learned over the previous year.

Researchers say that if they read just eight books over the summer, children are more likely to maintain their academic progress.

About 13,000 Arkansas teachers have trained in the science of reading, as part of a concerted effort to improve literacy. There are almost 34,000 certified teachers in Arkansas and almost 479,000 students.

In recent years, mediocre scores on standardized tests have led elected officials and educators in Arkansas to place greater emphasis on the science of reading.

One of their first steps was to expand and improve literacy training of teachers.

The legislature approved Act 1063 in 2017, and updated it with Act 83 of 2019. The new standards require schools to train teachers in new methods based on science, and by the 2021-2022 school new teachers must have knowledge of the science behind literacy in order to get a teaching license.

The state Education Department’s role in the new literacy effort is its R.I.S.E. Arkansas initiative. That stands for Reading Initiative for Student Excellence. The governor credited R.I.S.E for the training of 13,000 teachers in the science of reading during a recent speech.

He noted that for three consecutive years the high school graduation rate in Arkansas has risen, from 85 to 89 percent.

The new literacy training teaches phonics, which is traditional, but relies on new research that encourages young students to sound out words before checking for visual clues in pictures.

It teaches students to memorize “sight words,” which are very common words like “the” and “where.” This approach is traditional also, but the new science adds a new twist.

Rather than simply memorizing a list of sight words, students are taught to sound them out and “decode” them, as they do with unfamiliar words. Research indicates that young students build their list of sight words more quickly with the new method.

Volunteers who have been trained still can sit down with children and tutor them in literacy. However, they can also help address other factors that lower reading scores, such as regular absenteeism and encouraging more engagement from the student’s family.

R.I.S.E. brings schools and local community leaders together to create a culture of reading. The local leaders could come from businesses, churches or non-profits. Activities include having someone read to the kids, of course, and also include passing out bookmarks and posters, as well as taking kids on a field trip that promotes reading.

March 2, the birthday of Dr. Seuss, is a particularly popular day for reading activities.

Health Insurance Rates

Four companies offering health insurance through the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace (AHIM) proposed average rate increases of about 2 percent in 2020.

The state Insurance Commissioner cited several reasons for the relatively low increases proposed for consumers in the marketplace. One is elimination of a user fee of 1.25 percent.

Earlier this year the legislature enacted reforms in the marketplace to make it more efficient, and the stability in proposed rates is a reflection of those reforms.

More than 271,000 Arkansans purchase health insurance through the four companies in the marketplace.

July 26, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – A new law requiring stricter labeling of food products has placed Arkansas in the middle of an international dispute over truth in labeling.

Legislators approved Act 501 of 2019 to require truth in labeling of food products, and to prohibit labeling vegetable-based products as “bacon” or “burgers.”

The Senate voted 31-to-3 in favor of the act, and it went into effect on July 24. However, a national food manufacturer filed a lawsuit in federal court to have it stricken as a violation of free speech rights.

In the lawsuit, the company argued that it would have to pay a fine for selling its “plant-based jumbo hot dogs” and “smoked ham style plant-based deli slices” in Arkansas. In remarks to the media, its CEO accused Arkansas lawmakers of attempting to protect livestock growers, whose sales are declining because consumers want to buy healthier alternatives to beef, poultry and pork.

Another company spokesman told the press that terms like “plant-based meat” is truthful labeling, because consumers want to know that the products are made from plants.

Supporters of the law in Arkansas say that it eliminates confusion in labeling, and the company that filed the lawsuit claims that nobody is confused by terms such as “veggie dog” or “veggie burger,” and that the laws are an attempt to stifle competition and thwart the growing demand for plant-based products such as tofu burgers.

Louisiana, Missouri, Mississippi and South Dakota have enacted similar truth in food labeling laws, several of which have been legally challenged by food companies that market plant-based products labeled as meat.

When the Arkansas law took effect, national and international news outlets ran news articles.

In Europe, elected officials on both sides of the political spectrum support a similar measure. An agricultural subcommittee of the European parliament has approved a food labeling bill, much like Act 501 in Arkansas, although it probably won’t take effect for another year or two.

The European sponsor, an elected official from France, said it was simply common sense to restrict meat labels to products that come from animals.

European courts ruled in 2017 that tofu, soya and other plant products cannot be marketed as cream or butter, and that products marketed as dairy must come from animals.

The penalties in Act 501 is $1,000 for each violation. The act is not limited to the labeling of meat substitutes, but rice. For example, it prohibits labels like “cauliflower rice” and specifically lists the species of the rice plant that can legally be packaged as rice.

Retirement Committee Meetings

The legislature’s Joint Committee on Public Retirement scheduled 11 meetings across Arkansas from September 5 to November 6 to inform state employees about the financial health of their pension systems, and explain proposed changes.

A series of changes in the Public Employees Retirement System failed to win approval from the committee earlier this year, when the legislature was in regular session. Committee meetings were packed with affected employees who had concerns about the impact of the changes.

APERS has assets of about $8 billion and about 75,000 retired and active members.

July 19, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – Many of the bills approved by lawmakers earlier this year become effective on July 24, which is the 91stday after the legislature adjourned.

For example, Act 738, which strengthens traffic laws restricting the use of cell phones while driving, will be in place on July 24. The definition of texting has been expanded to include instant messaging and electronic data retrieval.

Act 738 prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from using a cell phone, or a hands-free device. Drivers who are 18, 19 and 20 may use a hands-free device while driving.

Drivers of all ages are prohibited from using a cell phone while in construction zones with workers present, or in school zones during school hours when students are present.

Fines for a first offense range from $25 to $250, and from $50 to $500 for a second offense. If the driver is in an accident or collision, the fines shall be doubled.

Also taking effect on July 24 is Act 650. It allows bicycle riders to slow down for stop signs and proceed through red lights, after stopping. In both instances the bicycles must yield to oncoming traffic and proceed cautiously.

Bills that had an emergency clause took effect immediately when the governor signed them.

For example, Act 423 clarifies when farmers may apply powerful herbicides such as dicamba. It had an emergency clause that made it take effect on March 11, when it was signed, to prevent egregious violations during the spring growing season.

A few bills have a specific date written into them, indicating when they are to go into effect.

For example, Act 784 raises the speed limit to 75 miles an hour on four-lane, controlled access highways, but not until July 1, 2020. The controlled access highways must be divided by a median strip and in rural areas.

The speed limit will be 70 miles per hour for commercial vehicles, which are defined as those weighing more than 26,000 pounds that carry passengers or property.

The Highway Commission may lower the limits if it completes an engineering and traffic safety investigation.

The effective date of new laws is set by Amendment 7 to the state Constitution, which gives citizens 90 days to file petitions seeking to overturn or amend any acts passed by the legislature.

In most cases bills without an emergency clause take effect on July 24. However, appropriations that authorize spending by state agencies took effect on July 1. That was the first day of state Fiscal Year 2020.

Three new symbolic designations will take effect on July 24. Act 510 designates the Bowie knife as the official state knife; Act 685 designates the shotgun as the official state firearm and Act 576 designates the alligator gar as the official state primitive fish, which is not to be confused with a game fish.

A total of 1,670 bills were filed in the Senate and House, and 1,092 became laws. The legislature convened on January 14, the second Monday of the year, and adjourned on April 24. The final day of regular business was actually on April 10.

During the two-week recess between April 10 and April 24 staff checked bills for typographical errors.

July 12, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The state Human Services Department is reviewing every case this year in which people have been denied assisted living or home care services in the Living Choices and ARChoices programs.

Until January of this year, DHS staff used to determine whether people were eligible. The criteria include their medical condition, for example, whether or not they have a disability or dementia. Also, their financial income is a factor.

One of the most important criteria is their “functionality,” which means how well they can get around, clean themselves, prepare meals and go to the bathroom by themselves.

People who are elderly and frail qualify, as do people 21 and over who have a physical disability.

In January, DHS began using a new assessment tool to determine eligibility. The assessments are also used to set levels of care. Under federal regulations, eligibility for home care and assisted living is determined by an independent agency, not by the beneficiary’s physician or health care provider.

DHS has a contract with a private company called Optum Healthcare Solutions, Inc. to conduct the assessments.

Since January, DHS officials and legislators have been receiving complaints from people who have been denied services from Living Choices and ARChoices. Of the people who have been assessed this year, 44 percent of those in assisted living were denied and 31 percent who received some type of help from ARChoices have been denied.

DHS is working with Optum, and is reviewing 551 denials in the ARChoices program and 225 denials in the Living Choices program. A deputy director from DHS told lawmakers that the reviews should be complete by the end of July.

People who have been denied already and have filed an appeal have the option of continuing with their appeal or choosing a new assessment.

According to testimony at the legislative committee, people who have been in assisted living facilities for several years have been denied renewal. That is frightening to the ones who no longer have a home or resources to find a place to live. That’s why DHS is making it a priority to review their cases.

At a joint meeting of Senate and House Committees, several legislators expressed their frustration with the denials and with Optum, in strong terms. One frustration is that it takes too long to get an assessment, because of a lack of personnel. According to the DHS official, Optum has replaced some of its staff since the complaints have become more numerous.

Other lawmakers reminded their colleagues on the committee that it was the legislature that directed DHS to find cost savings in Medicaid and health programs.

One legislator said that it would be good if the state “grandfathered in” everyone who already is in assisted living, but a DHS official said that federal law requires regular reassessments to determine eligibility.

When the state’s contract with Optum is due to be renewed, it’s expected that the controversy over assessments will come up again.

Living Choices serves about 1,000 people in 59 assisted living facilities across Arkansas, and ARChoices about 8,800 people.

July 3, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The state Division of Youth Services (DYS) closed a secure facility at Dermott, which was the second closing of a juvenile lockup this year.

With support from the legislature, officials at DYS are changing their basic approach to handling adolescents who get in trouble with the law. Rather than relying primarily on locking them inside a secure facility, DYS is expanding access to less restrictive settings in the youths’ home towns.

The Dermott Juvenile Treatment Center opened in 1999. It had 32 beds on 90 acres in southeast Arkansas. A second juvenile facility in Dermott will remain in operation. It’s the Dermott Juvenile Correction Facility, with 32 beds for juvenile sex offenders who require treatment, and high risk male offenders.

Youths are considered “at risk” when their behavior, if continued, is likely to cause them to end up in the judicial system or in prison.

Earlier this year DYS closed a 28-bed secure lockup at Colt, in St. Francis County. After the two closures, DYS now oversees five residential facilities for juvenile offenders.

The division has a contract with a private company from Indiana, Youth Opportunities, Inc., to operate the lockups in Mansfield, Lewisville and Harrisburg, as well as the Dermott facility that will remain open.

A private company called Rite of Passage has the contract to operate the facility in Alexander

Community programs for juveniles are wide ranging. They include therapy, intensive counseling and work with family members. They include education courses specifically designed to prevent youths from getting in trouble with law enforcement. Some youths live in emergency shelters, some live in supervised group homes and some remain at home under close monitoring by case managers.

Earlier this year the legislature approved Act 189, to authorize the shift in strategy by DYS away from secure detention and more toward community programs.

The act also makes the sentencing of juveniles more uniform, by requiring all judges to rely on the same risk assessment system.

One goal of Act 189 is to eliminate disparities in sentencing. Previously, youths in some areas were routinely locked up in a secure facility for committing offenses that were not treated as harshly by judges in other areas.

Levee Task Force

The governor announced the creation of a 20-member task force to improve the condition of levees throughout Arkansas. He also asked for $10 million to begin repairs on levees that failed during the flooding last month.

The task force will report by the end of this year on maintenance required and estimated costs to restore levees to good condition.

The floods of 2019 caused an estimated $100 million in damage to infrastructure.

The task force will build on the work done by the legislature in a 2016 special session. Lawmakers approved a plan to modernize the local governing authorities in charge of levee maintenance.

When the legislature began its work, state officials could not be certain of the exact number of levees in Arkansas, or who was responsible for maintaining them. Numerous local levee boards were no longer functioning because of vacancies.

June 28, 2019

State officials announced that school nurses will be provided with kits containing naloxone nasal spray, which helps keep alive people alive when they have overdosed on painkillers known as opioids.

According to state drug officials, there have been three cases of opioid overdoses in Arkansas high schools in the past year.

Over the past two years, emergency first responders have revived 262 Arkansans who were in danger of dying from an overdose. Naloxone allows them to continue breathing so that they have time to get emergency medical treatment.

Equipping about 1,100 school nurses with a naloxone kit is the most recent in the state’s efforts to fight the deadly effects of opioid abuse. Arkansas is among the nation’s leaders in abuse of prescription painkillers.

In 2017 the legislature approved Act 284, which authorized 6,100 pharmacists in Arkansas to dispense naloxone without a prior prescription in cases of an overdose. Also in 2017 the legislature added employees of the state Crime Lab to the list of responders who could get naloxone kits from pharmacists. The list include family members of people in danger of dying from an overdose, as well as first responders and emergency medical technicians.

Earlier this year, the Arkansas Criminal Justice Institute distributed naloxone kits to 1,390 first responders and police officers, funded through a grant from Blue Cross Blue Shield’s Blue and You Foundation.

Act 1114 of 2015 provides immunity from criminal prosecution for people who bring overdose victims to a hospital.

We became the 15th state to enact so-called “medical amnesty” laws. It was inspired by the case of a young man in Faulkner County who died of a drug overdose within a couple of blocks from a hospital.

Act 447 of 2019 requires that prescriptions of controlled substances be done electronically. This strengthened an existing law, Act 304 of 2011, which created the Arkansas Electronic Prescription Monitoring Program. It’s a database operated by the state Health Department that allows for analysis of the dispensing and use of controlled substance prescription drugs. It protects patient privacy, but allows monitoring agencies to spot potential abuse.

Arkansas is one of numerous states that have joined lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies that manufacture and distribute opioids.

In April the state Attorney General filed suit against three wholesale distributors of prescription drugs, alleging that they failed to comply with laws requiring them to report suspicious shipments of opioids. Instead, they distributed 67 dosage units for every person in Arkansas, the suit alleges. Arkansas has a population of about three million people and 236 million painkillers were delivered into the state in 2016.

A previous lawsuit was filed in 2018 by 72 of the state’s 75 counties and 210 cities, in which 90 percent of the state’s residents live. The suit contends that opioid manufacturers should pay for the cost of treating and preventing abuse of the drugs. The cities and counties say that since 2000, the number of fatal overdoses from opioids in Arkansas has gone up 300 percent, to about 400 people a year.

Both lawsuits emphasize that in Arkansas there are more prescriptions for painkillers than there are people.

June 21, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature updated Arkansas school choice laws when it approved Act 754 of 2019 earlier this year.

One goal of the act is to eliminate possible confusion about what are termed “opportunity choice” options, which allow a student to transfer from a school that is failing academically.

For a long time the state’s “opportunity choice” law allowed student transfers from schools designated as being in academic distress.

But in 2017 the legislature approved Act 930, a far-reaching modernization of accountability standards. The act erased 40 pages of school standards and replaced them with more modern methods on how to assess the quality of local schools.

One of the changes made by Act 930 eliminated references to schools in academic distress. Instead, it referred to those schools as needing intensive “Level 5” support from the state Education Department.

To eliminate confusion caused by the deletion of references to schools in academic distress, earlier this year the legislature passed Act 754. It clarifies that opportunity choice is available to students who attend a school needing Level 5 support. It also allows transfers from schools with an “F” on school report cards.

Students who apply for a transfer under the opportunity choice option cannot be denied unless the receiving district has a lack of capacity. In effect, it must show that it would have to build a new classroom or hire a new teacher to comply with standards that limit classroom sizes.

Act 754 makes a minor change in the public school choice option, which is distinct from the opportunity choice option.

The public school choice option allows students to transfer outside the district in which they live, but with limitations. For example, districts may choose not to allow transfers when they are under court orders to desegregate.

The Education Department has named 11 districts this year that do not have to allow transfers under the Arkansas school choice law, because they are involved in desegregation cases. Six are in Garland County and two are in Union County.

Precision is necessary in school choice laws, due to their controversial nature. State funding of schools is based on enrollment, so a district can lose substantial sums of state aid when they lose students who choose to transfer to neighboring districts.

That is one reason for the 3 percent limit on the number of students who may transfer out of a district in a given year under the public school choice option.

The 3 percent limit does not apply to opportunity choice transfers from schools that are failing academically.

Act 754 changes a key reporting date, to better prevent possible disputes over funding. Under the new act, the 3 percent limit on transfers out of a district will no longer be calculated according to enrollment on October 15, but on October 1.

The newer date is better suited to the dates on which school districts calculate their enrollment. Essentially, the change is meant to avoid the possibility that two separate districts expect to receive state aid for the same student.

June 14, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – Flooding has caused more than $100 million in damage to infrastructure in Arkansas, according to the governor’s request for federal relief.

Also, cleanup and removal of debris will cost local governments more than $8.5 million. State officials estimate that $27 million is needed for temporary housing, replacement housing and repairs to existing houses.

After a tour of flooded areas, the governor called for a renewed effort to assess the stability of the state’s levee systems.

Fortunately, that effort is already under way, thanks to a Senate bill enacted by the legislature during a 2016 special session.

Parts of Arkansas experienced flooding in 2015. Senators immediately began work on a plan to modernize the state’s system of levees, many of which were in bad condition. They used a legislative audit as a starting point, and concluded that it was time for a thorough re-organization of the levee system.

Legislators learned that it was impossible to accurately determine how many levees needed improvements, because local levee districts were not required to issue reports.

Although the governing boards of many levee districts are dedicated and responsible, many boards had faded out of existence. Others were ineffective due to a lack of membership, one reason being that they did not have a mechanism for replacing members who had died or resigned.

Those failings were corrected by Act 7 of the May special session of 2016.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers inspects levees if the local board joins a federal program. The Corps identifies where maintenance is needed, but has no power to mandate that maintenance be done.

The Corps can re-write flood zone maps to indicate areas that are prone to flooding due to inadequate levees. However, in order for necessary improvements to be made, a functioning local board must be in place.

Before Act 7, if a governing board had ceased to operate, there was no body to apply for and accept available grants and appropriations. Now, there is a process to replace vacancies and restore the ability of local boards to oversee maintenance of levees.

Lottery Scholarships

In May, lottery sales generated $8.3 million for college scholarships, which is about $360,000 more than was generated in May of 2018.

Lottery officials reported to legislators on an oversight committee that in May public interest was amplified by enormous jackpots in Mega Millions and Powerball games. They are known as draw games. In May, revenue from draw games increased by $2.3 million.

However, in May revenue from scratch off games went down by $1.6 million. Lottery officials attributed some of the decline to flooding and bad weather.

The fiscal year will end on June 30, and the sales of lottery tickets are on a pace to beat last year’s record of $502.4 million in total sales. Most of that amount was returned to players in the form of prizes, and $91.9 million was set aside for college scholarships.

With a month left in this fiscal year, lottery ticket sales have generated $84.9 million for scholarships. The record for a single fiscal year was set in 2012, when $97.5 million was set aside for scholarships. More than 34,000 students have received a scholarship this year.

June 7, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Tobacco Settlement Commission distributes funds to seven public health programs. According to an independent evaluation, they’re meeting an overwhelming majority of their goals.

The independent evaluation was by a team from the University of Central Arkansas at Conway. In its most recent report to the Senate Committee on Public Health, Welfare and Labor, the UCA team found that the seven programs had met, or were making progress toward meeting, 78 of 80 “indicator” goals.

One of the unmet goals was in the Medicaid Expansion Program paid for with tobacco settlement money. According to the independent evaluators, in late 2018 there was a slight decrease in the number of people getting coverage for hospital care under the program.

The other unmet goal was in the UAMS East Regional Campus program for assistance with paying for prescription medicines.

It was unmet because the program was discontinued for lack of need for its services, due to the availability of prescription drug coverage under the national Affordable Care Act. For that reason, future evaluation teams will no longer measure the UAMS programs effectiveness in reaching the “indicator” goal.

In 2000 the legislature created the Tobacco Settlement Commission and the programs it administers. Arkansas and other states had settled a lawsuit against major tobacco companies, in which the states sought compensation for the costs of treating illnesses caused by smoking.

Unlike those of many other states, Arkansas legislators decided to use all of the state’s share of the tobacco settlement to pay for health-related programs, as well as anti-smoking efforts.

For example, the UAMS East Campus and the Minority Health Initiative provided health screenings for 8,543 Arkansans at health fairs and wellness events where they work.

A portion of the tobacco settlement revenue pays for Medicaid coverage for people who otherwise may not have qualified. Last year 259 people with development disabilities were helped with Medicaid funding paid by the settlement. In all, 7,083 people received Medicaid services paid for by the tobacco settlement. They include pregnant women, senior citizens and eligible adults.

Settlement revenues pay for research at the UAMS College of Public Health, such as how to prevent and treat birth defects. Revenues also pay for 206 research projects at the Arkansas Biosciences Institute, which combines teams from Arkansas State University, the University of Arkansas, the U. of A. Division of Agriculture and UAMS.

Settlement revenue pays for geriatric care provided by the UAMS Center on Aging, which is working to improve the quality of life and expand the availability of health care of the growing number of seniors in rural areas. The program helps elderly people plan healthier diets, understand the effects of dementia, control their blood pressure and manage diabetes, among other services.

The settlement revenue also funds a Prevention and Cessation Program, with the goal of reducing the number of Arkansans who smoke or use tobacco. To measure its successfulness, the program set the baseline as 2013, when 32 percent of young people smoked or used tobacco products. According to its surveys, that rate has decreased to 26.2% in 2015 and to 23.1 percent in 2017.

May 17, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The rate of maternal mortality in Arkansas is above the national average, so earlier this year the legislature created a review committee to develop new strategies for preventing women from dying during childbirth.

The state Health Department will set up the committee with members from various medical and public health disciplines.

The committee will analyze the details of all pregnancy-related deaths, including the circumstances when women die as long as a year after giving birth. Regardless of the stated cause of death, the committee will review all the relevant factors that may have contributed to the deaths.

Committee members will review medical records and contact family members and other people involved in the women’s deaths.

The committee will recommend ways to prevent maternal deaths, such as efforts by public health agencies and clinics to improve prenatal care.

Under Act 829 of 2019, health care providers, facilities and pharmacies shall provide access to medical records. The act specifies that they will not be liable in a lawsuit for making those medical records available.

The medical records that are provided to the committee shall not be admissible as evidence in court, or before a regulatory board. Committee members and Health Department staff who participate in gathering and analyzing medical records shall not disclose them.

The proceedings of the committee will be confidential, as will the records it gathers and the statements of people interviewed by the committee.

If the medical information is available from other sources and by other avenues, it can still be used in criminal and civil proceedings.

Each year the committee shall issue a report to the Senate and House Committees on Public Health, Welfare and Labor and the Legislative Council. The Maternal Mortality Review Committee’s reports shall be in aggregate form, and will not include details that identify specific physicians or health care facilities.

Serious illness related to pregnancy is on the increase, perhaps due to lack of access to prenatal care and perhaps to increases in abuse of tobacco, drugs and alcohol.

In Arkansas, each year on average 35 women die during pregnancy or childbirth for every 100,000 live births. The national average is 20 maternal deaths per 100,000 live births. The main causes are bleeding, blood clots, heart problems and pre-existing chronic conditions. Public health experts estimate that half of the maternal deaths are preventable.

School Bus Safety

It’s illegal to pass a school bus that is stopped and has its red lights flashing, while children are getting off or boarding. But according to surveys by school bus drivers, it happens more than 800 times a day in Arkansas.

The state Education Department reported that 3,896 bus drivers in 227 Arkansas school districts reported 884 instances of being passed illegally on April 24. In 12 of those violations, vehicles passed the stopped bus on the right side, where children get on and off the bus.

More drivers participated this year than last year, when 3,258 drivers in 194 districts reported being passed illegally 857 times.

The legislature has approved Acts 166 of 2019 and Act 2128 of 2005 to strengthen penalties for passing a stopped school bus.

May 17, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The goal of the new Arkansas State Broadband Plan, announced by the governor, is to make high-speed Internet access available to all communities of more than 500 people by the year 2022.

The announcement specifically cites three Senate bills that have become law and have streamlined the process of setting up communications technology in under-served areas.

The Arkansas plan uses the standard for high speed Internet as 25 Mbps/3 Mbps. That means your Internet connection is capable of downloading 25 megabits per second and uploading three megabits per second.

The plan will benefit many residents of urban areas, as well as those in rural areas. In many Arkansas towns there are neighborhoods lacking access to high speed broadband. But other neighborhoods do have high speed access, so a map can be deceptive because it would indicate that the entire town has a capability of 25 mbps/3mbps.

According to the announcement, about 251,000 people in Arkansas live in areas with no Internet access. About 641,000 Arkansas residents have Internet access, but not high speed Internet.

About 721,000 have access to only one Internet provider, so they cannot switch to another company if they are unsatisfied with their quality of service. Now, there are 136 companies providing Internet service in Arkansas.

During this year’s regular session, the legislature approved two new acts to promote expansion of broadband in areas that are lacking. Act 198 of 2019 allows local governments to get involved in the creation of new Internet service. In partnership with private companies, local entities can apply for federal funding, loans and grants.

Act 999 of 2019 promotes the growth of wireless and communications technology through new products such as 5G technology. Its goal is the building of new small cells and the antennas needed to make them work. Act 999 allows government entities to make agreements with private companies to use public rights-of-way for those facilities.

Also mentioned in the announcement was Act 813 of 2017, which allows for the creation of public-private partnerships. The partnerships are not limited to computer and communications projects. They can be for new facilities at schools, prisons, recreation centers, utilities, water and sewer systems, hospitals and libraries.

Expanding broadband access throughout Arkansas is important for many reasons. It will improve health care, by making transmittal of medical records faster and by allowing more video-conferencing. It will improve all aspects of education. It will promote economic development, and make opportunity more nearly equal in all geographic areas of the state.

It will prepare us for the next era, when broadband technology will allow transmission of even greater amounts of data than is possible now.

Except for the most visionary among us, the current standard of 25 mbps would have seemed unthinkable in the 1990s, when it was necessary in many households to unplug the telephone to access the Internet. The telephone would have been a “landline” and many consumers referred to the Internet as the “World Wide Web.”

The new Broadband Plan recognizes that Internet service in America has become like electricity and running water, in that now it is so essential that government assumes the responsibility of helping to make it available where the private sector cannot afford to.

May 10, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – Job training and workforce education are offered by numerous government entities in Arkansas. That’s part of the problem.

Overlap and duplication create confusion for people who want to improve their job skills, and they are inefficient uses of tax dollars.

With that in mind, legislators approved Act 1079 earlier this year, to bring all career education and workforce training into one system. They will be under a board known as the Career Education and Workforce Development Board, whose members will be appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Senate.

They will represent the agriculture, construction, energy, health care, information technology, manufacturing, financial services, hospitality, transportation and rehabilitative services industries. One of their primary duties will be to eliminate the duplication of efforts that now exists.

The preamble to Act 1079 notes that “significant inefficiencies” exist in job training efforts due to duplication. It may seem counterintuitive, but the overlaps and duplication also create gaps in course offerings, resulting from “important programs being overlooked as presumably covered by another program.”

The new Board is charged with bringing “consistency, efficiency, and rigor” to job training programs, and with ensuring that they measure up to industry standards.

Lawmakers enacted another new law this year to provide industry with more influence in job training. Act 55 changes the composition of the state 12-member Higher Education Coordinating Board, increasing from six to nine the number of members who shall be selected from business, industry, education, agriculturally related industry, and medical services, and who shall not be current members of a board of a public two-year college or four-year university.

Act 944 of 2019 is meant to increase the availability of job training courses offered by two-year colleges. It allows colleges to market themselves, offer courses and provider services to anyone in the state, regardless of the service area in which the person lives.

About 22 percent of Arkansas adults have earned a bachelor’s degree. About 31 percent have an associate’s degree or have attended college but not earned a bachelor’s.

For a person with a high school diploma, the most in-demand job is food preparation and serving of food. The second is retail sales.

The most in-demand job for people with an associate’s degree is driving a tractor-trailer or heavy truck, and the second is nursing assistant.

Of the jobs available to people with a bachelor’s degree, the most in-demand job is as a registered nurse. The second is general operations management.

One reason for the number and variety of job training programs is that there are numerous paths to employment. Some people enlist in the military, and then look for a job after their discharge. Some go straight into the job market from high school, while others take technical classes in college.

Some people learn job skills at adult education centers. Several agencies send instructors to local industries for people who already have jobs and who want to improve their skills. Some people enter the workforce through apprenticeship programs.

Others take job training and adult education courses that are required in order to receive Medicaid, food stamps or welfare. Some people have physical or learning disabilities, and get jobs after completing occupational therapy.

May 3, 2019

The Division of Youth Services (DYS) has already begun to make sweeping changes in how the state treats juvenile offenders.

The Division announced that the first day of May marked the beginning of a new approach for meeting the needs of youthful offenders.

The new changes mean that a team of staff will tailor an individual treatment plan for each offender, and the team will discuss that plan in person with the youths and their families. Previously, staff talked over the telephone with the youth’s family.

The team who personally meet with youths and families will be larger and more specialized than previously. They will include an education specialist, a nurse, a behavioral health clinician, an independent living expert and a behavior modification specialist. With the family, they will review the results of every assessment that the youths have gone through.

The DYS announcement specifically mentioned the availability of drug abuse treatment for teenagers who get in trouble with the law. The Division has contracted with an organization that can house youths in a group home while treating them for substance abuse.

Also, the Division is opening a residential facility in Harrisburg for females. It will be at the Harrisburg Juvenile Treatment Center and will open by the end of May and will provide personalized treatment for girls.

The new approach to treatment, and the renewed emphasis on keeping young offenders in their local communities, is part of a statewide effort to completely restructure the DYS system. Many of the changes are authorized in Act 189 of 2019, which requires all juvenile judges to rely on a uniform risk assessment system.

A goal is to eliminate the severe disparities in treatment of juvenile offenders, which resulted in teenagers from some parts of the state being sentenced to lockups for relatively minor offenses.

Judges will be required to rely on uniform sentencing standards, but they also will have more options. Some youths may be required to attend structured, after-school programs in their hometowns, rather than being sent across the state to a secure lockup.

DYS is in the process of contracting with organizations that will provide residential treatment for juvenile sex offenders, as well as substance abuse treatment. Also, the Division will contract with an organization to operate a therapeutic group home.

Every year, about 350 youths get in trouble and are placed in the custody of DYS by a court.

The changes at DYS are meant to provide youths with the most appropriate treatment, in the least restrictive setting. The Division has closed secure lockups, and is expanding the use of group homes that are not surrounded by fencing.

In related news, the DYS operation of secure detention facilities is in litigation. The Division is in the process of contracting with a private firm to run secure detention facilities in Dermott, Harrisburg, Lewisville and Mansfield.

The Nevada company that originally got the contract was disqualified after a competitor from Indiana filed a complaint, which referred to past problems the Nevada company had while running a juvenile lockup in Colorado. The Indiana firm got the contract and the Nevada firm sued to win it back. The contract was for one year and valued at $15.8 million.

A spokesman for DYS said that the Division is poised to turn over the juvenile facilities to a private operator by July 1.

April 26, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature officially ended the 2019 regular session when it adjourned sine die on April 24.

Unless the governor calls a special session, legislators are not scheduled to convene again until the 2020 fiscal session.

Generally, bills approved during this year’s session will take effect 90 days after sine die. Some bills included an emergency clause, which means that they take effect immediately when they are signed. Also, appropriation bills that authorize spending by state agencies will take effect on July 1, the beginning of the next fiscal year.

This year the legislature considered 684 Senate bills and 986 House bills. As of last week, 1,091 bills had become law, although a handful of measures that had been approved by both chambers were awaiting the governor’s signature. This year the governor did not veto any bills.

The 2019 session began on January 14. The last day of business actually occurred on April 10, when legislators recessed until April 24. During the recess, all the bills that were approved were closely reviewed for mistakes or typographical errors. None were discovered.

Even though no mistakes were corrected and there were no gubernatorial vetoes to consider, on April 24 senators actually conducted business in addition to officially adjourning.

The Senate concurred in a House amendment to Senate Bill 179, a bill affecting municipal government. The Senate action allowed the bill to be sent to the governor for his signature, and to become state law.

It was a very rare occurrence to actually vote on a bill, because typically when the legislature adjourns sine die only a few members attend. Usually, all there is to do is vote on the motion to adjourn. It is mostly ceremonial.

After adjourning the 92nd General Assembly, legislators got to work on issues that will come up later this year, and which may be addressed in future sessions.

In the first meeting of the interim, members of the Senate and House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees questioned officials of the Human Services Department and private health care providers.

There have been problems in the Medicaid program with timely reimbursement of providers, and disruptions in the coordination of care for people with developmental disabilities and mental illness.

The state is transitioning to a new managed care system for those patients. Rather than the state Department of Human Services paying for services provided, it will pay pre-determined fees to a PASSE. That stands for Provider-led Arkansas Shared Savings Entity.

A goal of the new system is to reduce the waiting list of people needing services. Another goal is to save money. Another is to expand treatment options by allowing providers of specialty services join the system.

According to DHS, about 4,600 people with disabilities are receiving services through the PASSE system, with another 2,400 Arkansans on a wait list.

Also, about 38,000 people with significant behavioral health needs are in the PASSE system, as well as about 750 people who live in intermediate care facilities, where they receive care.

April 12, 2019

The legislature completed the 2019 regular session after finalizing a balanced budget of about $5.75 billion in general revenue for next fiscal year. That is about $124 million more than will be spent during the current year.

The state general revenue fund is mostly generated by sales taxes, individual income taxes and corporate income taxes.

The legislature enacted a trio of tax cuts. Act 182 will save Arkansas families more than $97 million a year in lower personal income taxes. It will benefit about 579,000 taxpayers with net taxable incomes greater than $38,200.

Act 808 lowers property taxes for more than 716,000 homeowners, by increasing the homestead property tax credit from $350 to $375. Each year, Arkansas homeowners will save an additional $12.5 million because of Act 808.

Act 822 will lower income taxes by about $57 million a year for businesses when it is fully in effect. It lowers the top rate for income above $100,000, and it extends to 20 years the carry forward period in which they can claim net operating losses.

Much of the lost state revenue will be made up from sales taxes on Internet retail purchases. The act does not change sales tax rates, but clarifies that they will be collected equally from online retailers as they are collected from “bricks and mortar” stores.

The legislature enacted long-term highway program. Act 146 will generate $59 million a year for the state and $12.6 million a year for both cities and counties to maintain and build roads and bridges.

It levies a new wholesale sales tax on gasoline and diesel, which will result in an additional 3 cents a gallon on gas and 6 cents on diesel.

The new state rate for gasoline will be 24.5 cents a gallon, and for diesel it will be 28.5 cents. In the future, increases will be limited to 0.1 percent per gallon.

The bill levies additional registration fees on electric vehicles of $200 and hybrid vehicles of $100. In 2018 there were 18,777 hybrids registered in Arkansas, and 802 electric vehicles registered. Their owners paid $17, $25 or $30 to register, depending on the weight of the vehicles.

Also, $35 million a year from new casino taxes will be transferred to state highway projects.

The second component of the highway program will depend on Arkansas voters. The legislature referred to the 2020 ballot whether to make permanent the current temporary half-cent sales tax. Revenue from the half cent is allocated for highways.

If voters approve, the half cent will generate $293.7 million a year. Cities and counties will each receive $44 million, and the state Transportation Department will get the remaining $205 million each year.

If voters reject the extension, the sales tax will expire in 2023. It was approved in a statewide general election in 2012 by a margin of 58 percent to 42 percent.

Minimum salaries for teachers will go up $1,000 a year in each of the next four years, thanks to Act 170. Teachers will benefit mostly in the 168 districts that now pay the minimum or slightly above it. In 67 school districts teachers are already paid more than the state minimum salary.

Act 189 changes how juvenile offenders are sentenced. It’s an effort to reduce the number of teens who are sent to secure detention facilities for minor offenses. It also makes sentencing guidelines more uniform across the state.

April 5, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The Correction Department will keep secret any records about lethal injection and carrying out the death penalty, under a bill that exempts those records from the state Freedom of Information Act.

The department is responsible for executing inmates who have been convicted of capital crimes and sentenced to death. In recent years, prison officials have had difficulty purchasing the drugs used for lethal injection, and one reason is that pharmaceutical companies don’t want death penalty protesters to know of their involvement.

At this time, the department does not have a supply of the three drugs used in lethal injection.

Both the Senate and the House or Representatives have passed Senate Bill 464, the measure that keeps confidential the records concerning lethal injection drugs. The governor is expected to sign it.

There are 30 inmates on death row. Arkansas last carried out the death penalty in 2017.

SB 464 also makes it a felony to publicly reveal information about lethal injection in Arkansas.

The legislature has agreed to refer to voters a proposed constitutional amendment to set term limits for lawmakers at 12 years, although current office holders would be allowed to complete 16 years.

If voters approve the amendment next year, legislators would have to step down after they reach their term limit, but they could run again after four years out of office.

Both chambers have approved a bill to raise the speed limit on interstate highways from 70 to 75 miles per hour.

The higher limits will not be allowed in urban areas, and must only be on controlled access four-lane highways divided by a median. Commercial vehicles, such as passenger buses and 18-wheelers, will still be restricted to 70 miles an hour.

Both chambers have approved SB 576, a corporate income tax reduction. When it is fully in effect, it will save Arkansas businesses more than $57 million a year.

Both chambers also approved SB 447, an increase in the Homestead Property Tax Credit from $350 to $375 each year. It will save Arkansas homeowners more than $12.5 million a year.

The Senate has approved SB 618, to allow income tax credits for employees of child care facilities who return to college to get a degree or a certificate in early childhood education.

The tax credits would increase in value, from $250 for earning a certificate, to $500 for getting an associate’s degree and $1,000 for earning a bachelor’s degree.

Act 677, to increase the penalties for telemarketers who scam telephone customers, passed easily in both chambers and awaits the governor’s signature. It prohibits robocalls, which are recorded phone calls automatically generated by computers.

The bill makes it a felony for telemarketers to disguise their identities. Using a process known as “spoofing,” scammers deceive telephone’s caller ID function so that fake numbers appear up when your telephone rings. Often, the number looks familiar to those that you commonly call, so you’re more likely to answer.

Both chambers have approved SB 278, to increase the waiting period for getting an abortion from 48 to 72 hours.

March 29, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The Senate voted to refer to Arkansas voters a term limits amendment that would restrict future legislators to 12-year terms.

Also, the Senate approved a Medicaid budget for next fiscal year, which is one of the most important appropriations in state government.

The measure is Senate Joint Resolution 15 (SJR 15). It was adopted by a vote of 27-to-3.

If the House of Representatives goes along with the Senate resolution, it will be on the general election ballot in November of 2020.

The House and Senate have already agreed to refer to voters HJR 1018 to extend permanently the current half-cent sales tax that generates about $294 million a year, with the revenue going for highway and bridge projects.

The current term limits amendment in the state Constitution limits legislators to a lifetime of 16 years. The proposed SJR 15, while restricting a lawmaker to 12 years, would not be a lifetime limit.

After 12 years the legislator would have to leave office and remain out of office for at least four years before running again for a position in the legislature.

Under SJR 15, current office holders would be “grandfathered in,” meaning that they could continue to serve until they reach 16 years. The 12-year limit would apply to anyone elected in 2021 or afterword.

The Medicaid budget is in Senate Bill 99, the appropriation for the Division of Medical Services for the Department of Human Services. It passed by a vote of 27-to-4, with approval requiring an extraordinary majority of 75 percent, or 27 votes in the 35-member Senate. It now goes to the 100-member House, where it will need 75 votes.

SB 99 appropriates more than $8 billion in state revenue and federal matching funds.

Medicaid subsidizes health care services for children working families who cannot afford private insurance, nursing home care and medical care for people with low incomes.

When physicians, hospitals and pharmacies provide services to eligible Medicaid recipients, they are reimbursed by the Medicaid program.

The House passed HB 1775 to impose a work requirement for about 50,000 food stamp recipients. In order to receive a food stamp card, they would have to look for work or take job training.

The work requirement would apply to people under 60 whose children are older than six. It also would apply if they had no children. HB 1775 will next be considered by the Senate.

The Senate voted to increase penalties for political candidates who break campaign finance laws by converting contributions to personal use. If they convert more than $2,500, the offense will be a felony. The increased penalties are in SB 258, which was sent to the House.

Both chambers have approved and sent to the governor for his signature HB 1409 to guarantee that elementary students get at least 40 minutes a day of recess.

The bill recognizes that mandates enacted over the years by the legislature have made it difficult for schools to fit in all of the required classwork, as well as recess.

The Senate has passed SB 383 to enable schools to hire their own law enforcement officers for security, so they do not have to rely on local sheriffs’ offices and police departments.

March 22, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The Senate has already approved several large tax cuts this session, and another one is on its agenda.

Senate Bill 576 will make far-reaching changes in the state corporate income tax code, to the extent that the Department of Finance and Administration will have to update its computers from now until 2024 in order to process them.

The Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee advanced the bill, which will be considered soon by the entire Senate.

By Fiscal Year 2023, when most of the bill’s provisions are fully in effect, they will save Arkansas businesses more than $57 million a year.

SB 576 extends a company’s ability to carry forward net operating losses. The longer carry forward period will gradually extend to 20 years. Now it is five years.

The bill changes how multi-state corporations calculate the Arkansas portion of their taxable income. Now, they use a formula based on sales, property and payroll. SB 576 changes the apportionment formula so that it considers only sales in Arkansas compared to sales everywhere else.

The bill also allows more favorable treatment of income when Arkansas firms sell products to other states, where the receiving state does not levy taxes on them. Half of those sales will be exempt in 2021 and all income from those sales will be exempt in 2022.

Much of the loss of revenue from the tax relief would be offset by collecting sales tax from remote sellers, which are Internet companies that have no physical presence in Arkansas.

The legislature has already enacted a $97 million income tax cut that lowers the top marginal rate.

About 579,000 taxpayers with income of more than $38,200 will have lower taxes.

The Senate has passed SB 447 to increase the homestead property tax credit from $350 to $375, and the bill is awaiting action in House committee.

By the thinnest of margins, the Senate approved SB 571 to set up an earned income tax credit for people with low incomes, and to reduce the income tax rate for low income taxpayers. It also increase the standard deduction by $1,100, which helps anyone who claims it.

The Senate passed SB 571 by a vote of 18-to-14. In the 35-member Senate, 18 votes were necessary for passage. The bill has yet to be considered by the House of Representatives.

The lost revenue would be offset by increases in taxes on cigarettes and vaping. The bill’s sponsors say that revenue from tobacco taxes is much less than the cost to the state for treating Medicaid patients with tobacco-related illnesses. The gap is $500 million a year.

The House passed HB1342 to raise the threshold for exempting purchases of used cars from the sales tax. It’s now $4,000 and the bill would raise exempt sales of used cars up to $7,500.

The bill also exempts sales of used trailers if they cost less than $4,000. About 38,000 additional used vehicles would become exempt if the bill passes.

Both chambers have passed HB 1564 to modernize 911 call systems. Funding will be from higher fees on cell phones. Fees on landline telephones have dropped severely, because so many consumers have switched to cell phones and have cancelled their land lines.

The House must agree with a Senate amendment for passage of the bill to be final.

Also, both chambers have passed legislation to move primary elections from May to March in years of presidential elections. It has been sent to the governor.

March 15, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The Senate passed legislation to increase the homestead property tax credit, which will save more than 716,000 Arkansas homeowners about $12.5 million a year.

Senate Bill 447 also allocates $8.2 million for Arkansas counties to upgrade their voting machines.

Homeowners who claim the property tax credit now get $350 each year. SB 447 would raise that to $375. The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 34-to-0 and sent it to the House of Representatives.

Legislative leaders announced that they would seek a tax reduction of almost $100 million for Arkansas taxpayers who claim the standard deduction. The lost revenue would be offset by increases in taxes on cigarettes and “vapes.”

The Senate also passed SB 464 to keep confidential any information that may help identify the manufacturers of the lethal injection drugs used by the state Correction Department to execute inmates convicted of capital murder.

Anyone who recklessly disclosed information could be found guilty of a felony if it led to the identification of the producers of lethal injection drugs.

The Correction Department has had difficulty maintaining drugs used for lethal injection, in part because pharmaceutical companies sometimes face boycotts and protests from opponents of capital punishment.

Both the Senate and House have approved HB 1439 to prohibit abortions before 18 months of gestation. It has exceptions for medical emergencies or if the mother’s pregnancy resulted from rape or incest.

Both chambers also passed HB 1561 to authorize a pilot program allowing companies to test driverless cars. Only three vehicles could be on the roads at any one time. Arkansas will become the 30th state to allow tests of autonomous vehicles.

Both chambers have passed SB 145 to promote renewable energy production. Supporters of the bill say it could double the number of jobs in the field of installation of solar panels. The state’s major electric utility did not oppose the bill because it was written so as to prevent cost-shifting to existing utility customers who don’t have solar equipment.

It allows people to lease solar panels, rather than own them, which supporters say will promote further development of renewable energy.

The House approved HB 1567 to require physicians, clinics and health care providers to electronically enter evidence from rape and sexual assault into a computer data base maintained by the state Crime Lab.

Victims and law enforcement can then track the progress of the evidence in the rape kit. The bill is a follow-up to legislation enacted in 2015 creating a system of collecting and maintaining evidence. It should help prevent backlogs, and should help authorities solve other cases because DNA testing can be used to catch offenders of other crimes after they are submitted into a data base.

The governor signed Act 416 to raise $95 million a year for highway projects. The revenue will come from motor fuels taxes, registration fees on hybrid and electric vehicles and new casino taxes.

Next year, Arkansas voters will decide whether to permanently extend a half-cent sales tax, with revenue going for highway projects.

March 8, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature has approved and the governor has signed a package of bills sponsored by female lawmakers. The coalition of legislators dubbed their package “Dream BIG for Arkansas.”

Act 198 expands access to the Internet by allowing towns, cities and local government entities to acquire, lease or build facilities to deliver broadband services.

Act 181 the process of designating the Winthrop P. Rockefeller Cancer Institute at UAMS as a National Cancer Institute.

Act 83 requires schools to include literacy in their school improvement plans, and to follow curricula and use materials and methods proven scientifically to be effective in helping children with dyslexia.

A driving force behind the bill is the recognition that only 38 percent of third graders read at “ready” or “exceeding” on 2018 standardized reading tests (ACT Aspire).

Act 131 encourages entrepreneurship in child care facilities, especially in rural areas and other places where there is a lack of child care. It requires DHS to simplify its licensing requirements and grant applications, and to eliminate duplication and unnecessary paperwork.

The legislature has enacted most of a package of bills proposed by the veterans’ caucus, including Act 171 to ease the deadlines for school transfer applications for children whose parents live on a military base.

Act 148 authorizes the Adjutant General of Arkansas to remove officers from the National Guard if they are substandard in carrying out their duty, deficient in character, medically unfit or unsuited for military service.

The governor’s authority to order the militia into service now includes using the militia to address cybersecurity threats and vulnerabilities in state information systems, thanks to Act 149.

The former site of the Southeast Arkansas Community Correction Center may be donated to an Arkansas-based non-profit organization that serves veterans, under Act 160. No inmates have been housed at the site since 2016.

The Senate approved SB 445 to permanently move the date of primary elections to March in years when there is also a presidential election. Our primaries have traditionally been in May, and in both major political parties the eventual candidate has virtually wrapped up the nomination by then. The goal of moving up the date to March is to make the Arkansas primary more relevant in national politics.

The Senate Committee on Revenue and Taxation advanced SB 447 to increase the homestead property tax credit from $350 to $375. In 2018, a total of 716,525 property owners received tax credit benefits of $230,000,000.

The act will save homeowners more than $12.5 million a year. It also transfers $8.2 million from the excess amounts in the property tax relief fund into a grant program for updating voting machines. The state chief financial officer will determine the amount needed to maintain the property tax relief fund, and any excess will be transferred to general revenue for tax relief.

The excess also can be used for financial aid to school districts whose revenue has declined as a result of Amendment 79, which voters approved in 2000 to create the homestead credit and place limits on growth in taxable value of property.

March 1, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature advanced a major highway program and tougher new ethics laws.

Senate Bill 336 is part of the governor’s proposal to raise funding for highway construction and maintenance. The Senate approved the measure and sent it to the House of Representatives, where it received a favorable vote in committee.

The bills is supported by a significant portion of the business community, as well as representatives of Arkansas trucking companies.

It levies a new wholesale sales tax on gasoline and diesel, which will result in an additional 3 cents a gallon on gas and 6 cents on diesel. The new state rate for gasoline will be 24.5 cents a gallon, and for diesel it will be 28.5 cents.

When fully in effect, in Fiscal Year 2021, this new wholesale sales tax will generate $59 million a year for state highway projects and $12.6 million each a year for both cities and counties.

Increases from one year to the next will be limited to 0.1 percent per gallon.

Both the Senate and the House have approved SB 249 to SB 256 to strengthen laws on ethics for public officials and campaign finance. SB 249 increases the maximum fine that the Ethics Commission can impose, from $2,000 to $3,500. SB 256 prohibits a legislator or constitutional officer from being a registered lobbyist, not only in Arkansas but in other states.

Act 191 will improve enforcement of the new ethics laws by increasing the staff of the state Ethics Commission from nine to 11 employees.

Several measures affecting public schools advanced. House Bill 1419, which would require public schools to offer individual classes to home-schooled students, was endorsed by the House Education Committee.

HB 1182 would make it a primary offense to use a cell phone while driving through a school zone when children are present. A police officer could stop drivers solely for the purpose of finding out if they were using a phone, which they could not do if it were a secondary offense. Both chambers have approved HB 1182.

Both chambers have approved and sent to the governor HB1014 to require high schools to teach bleeding control and the use of a tourniquet, as a component of health classes.

HB 1356 requires schools to treat students no differently although they may owe money for lunches. It was endorsed in House committee. For example, schools could not make students wear wrist bands if they had a debt for meals.

The House also approved HB 1437, which professionals who work with children to notify law enforcement if they have reason to believe there is a serious and imminent threat of violence targeted at a school.

The list of occupations is long, and includes doctors, teachers, social workers, foster parents, school counselors and school officials, mental health professionals and advocates for children.

The House approved and sent to the Senate HB 1431to prohibit abortions after 18 weeks of gestation, except in cases of medical emergency that threatens the life of the mother.

February 22, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature approved and the governor signed two of the high-profile bills of this year’s session.

One bill lowers state income taxes by $97 million a year for 579,000 Arkansas taxpayers who earn more than $38,200 a year. It is Act 182.

The other bill raises teacher minimum salaries by about $1,000 a year, over the next four years. It will directly benefit teachers in 168 school districts. It is Act 170.

Arkansas became the fifth state to enact a so-called “trigger” law that will immediately prohibit abortions if the U.S. Supreme Court overturns the Roe vs. Wade ruling. It is Act 180.

It has exceptions. For example, it would not be an abortion if the procedure were done to save the life or preserve the health of the unborn child, to remove a dead unborn child caused by a spontaneous abortion or to remove an ectopic pregnancy.

There is a provision allowing an abortion to save the life of the pregnant mother in a medical emergency.

Act 189 makes fundamental changes in how juvenile offenders are sentenced. Its goal is for fewer juveniles to be sent to lock-ups, and more to get treatment and supervision through intervention in their community.

All judges will have to use a risk assessment system, and no judge could send a youth to a lock-up for a minor offense unless that judge specifically listed reasons for considering the youth a moderate or high risk case.

The state Division of Youth Services (DYS) operates juvenile detention facilities, administers community programs and intervenes in court when juveniles get in trouble.

DYS will be required to monitor all juvenile cases to ensure they are being handled according to new risk assessment methods. The division must develop individual plans for youths in trouble, based on the evidence, and the plans must involve families.

Already, juvenile judges in 19 of the 75 counties in Arkansas rely on validated risk assessments when they rule on a juvenile’s placement. Expanding the use of the assessments will coincide with a decreased reliance on lock-ups. The state has announced the closing of two secure facilities, in St. Francis and in Chicot Counties.

The juvenile justice bill was approved in the Senate by a vote of 35-to-0 and in the House by a vote of 95-to-0.

Senate Bill 256 to prohibit legislators and state constitutional officers from lobbying was approved by the Senate and advanced by the House Rules Committee.

The elected officials it affects may not register as a lobbyist, not only in Arkansas but also in other states. SB 256 has bipartisan sponsorship, and passed the Senate by a 34-to-0 vote.

SB 150, which grants cities greater authority to offer broadband Internet service, passed unanimously in both chambers and was sent to the governor.

More than 500 Arkansas state troopers would get a five percent pay raise, on top of merit raises and cost-of-living raises, under an amendment to the State Police appropriation that got a favorable vote in subcommittee.

The Joint Budget Committee must affirm the vote, and legislators must identify a source of revenue to fund the raises.

February 15, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The governor, legislators and private business groups joined to propose a highway program that would add $300 million a year in revenue for the state Transportation Department.

The plan also would add $110 million a year for cities and counties to maintain local roads.

The bulk of the revenue would come from extending permanently the current half-cent sales tax that is dedicated to highway projects. Arkansas voters approved the half-cent tax by a margin of 58 to 42 percent in a 2012 statewide election. It went into effect in 2013 and is scheduled to expire in 2023.

The governor’s highway proposal would allow voters to decide whether to extend the tax permanently. If voters approve the proposal to extend it, the half-cent tax would produce about $206 million a year. That amount would be divided according to the traditional “70-15-15” split of highway money in Arkansas, meaning that the state gets 70 percent while cities and counties each get 15 percent.

The highway proposal includes another $58 million a year from an increase on gasoline and diesel fuel taxes at the wholesale level. The increase would raise the motor fuel tax on gasoline from 21.5 to 24.5 cents a gallon. On diesel, the increase would be from 22.5 to 28.5 cents a gallon. Those are state motor fuel taxes. Motorists also pay federal motor fuel taxes.

The president of the Arkansas Trucking Association was at the presentation of the highway program, which the trucking group supports.

The plan calls for raising almost $2 million from higher registration fees on electric and hybrid vehicles.

The state reported that 802 electric vehicles were registered in January. They would pay an additional $200 in fees. In January 18,777 hybrids were registered and they would pay an additional $100.

The final piece of the revenue plan is to dedicate $35 million in casino taxes to highway projects. Last November, Arkansas voters approved the opening of four casinos.

A competing highway proposal is House Bill 1260, which would transfer funds from the state’s general account to highways when revenue from sales taxes exceed $2.5 billion. It also would add a new wholesale tax on gas and diesel. The bill is in a House committee.

By the deadline for filing proposed constitutional amendments, 46 measures had been submitted by legislators. In each regular session the legislature can refer up to three proposed amendments to voters. Those referred during the 2019 session will be on the general election ballot in November of 2020.

Several proposed amendments would change the process by which citizens’ groups can re-write the Constitution by circulating petitions, gathering signatures and getting their measures placed on statewide ballots.

One proposal would repeal fiscal sessions of the legislature, which are held in even-numbered years. The first fiscal session was in 2010, before which the legislature met in regular session every two years.

Another measure would allow the legislature to limit punitive damages in civil lawsuits, as well as non-economic damages such as damages for pain and suffering.

Several of the proposed amendments are “shells,” meaning that their general topic is listed but the details must be added later.

February 8, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature advanced a series of tax cuts, including the signature bill of this year’s session, to lower personal income taxes by about $97 million a year.

The Senate passed SB 211 to reduce income taxes for individuals in the middle and upper brackets of the tax tables.

The top marginal rate would drop from 6.9 percent to 5.9 percent over two years, and other rates would also go down in other brackets. In all, about 579,000 Arkansas taxpayers would benefit from the lower rates in SB 211.

After its approval by the Senate, the bill now goes to the House of Representatives.

The House passed HB 1321 to increase the homestead property tax credit from $350 to $375. The credits are paid each year on about 700,000 parcels of land.

According to revenue officials who spoke on the bill in committee, the fund from which the credits are paid is financially sound. The last time the credit was raised was in 2007, when the legislature passed Act 142 to raise it from $300 to $350.

The Senate approved SB 196 to provide tax incentives to businesses that invest in “Opportunity Zones,” which are designated to be in economic distress based on results of the U.S. Census. It now goes to the House.

There are 85 opportunity zones in Arkansas, and if a business moves in and stays for 10 years without re-locating, it will not have to pay taxes on any capital gains.

A bipartisan coalition of legislative leaders from both the Senate and the House presented a package of six ethics bills they will support. The coalition includes the President Pro Tem of the Senate, Speaker of the House, the Senate Majority Leader and the Senate Minority Leader.

SB 249 would increase the maximum fines that the state Ethics Commission could impose for violations of ethics laws, from $2,000 to $3,500.

SB 256 would prohibit any state elected official from registering as a lobbyist in any jurisdiction.

SB 258 would increase the penalties for candidates found guilty of spending campaign funds for their personal use. If the amount of misspent campaign money is more than $2,500 the offense would be a felony.

SB 259 would prevent constitutional officers and lawmakers from forming more than one political action committee. The bill would include judges and members of the citizens commission that sets legislative salaries.

SB 260 would prohibit political action committees from making contributions to other political action committees.

SB 238 would prohibit an elected official from collecting retirement benefits if they are convicted of a felony arising out of their official actions.

A subcommittee of the Joint Budget Committee approved a proposal to increase the budget of the Ethics Commission so that it can hire two more employees, thus increasing its enforcement capabilities. It has nine employees now.

The Senate also approved SB 152 to make broad changes in how juvenile offenders are sentenced. It would require juvenile judges statewide to use the same risk assessment model. It would not allow judges to sentence juveniles to a lock-up for minor offenses unless they made a specific determination that the juvenile was a high or moderate risk.

February 1, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The governor and legislators presented the details of the signature issue of this year’s session, a reduction in personal income taxes.

The proposal would lower the top marginal rate from 6.9 percent to 6.6 percent the first year, which would be calendar year 2020. Then the rate would drop to 5.9 percent, beginning in 2021.

The governor assured legislators that no one would pay more income tax due to being bumped into a higher bracket.

When fully in place, the reduction would save Arkansas taxpayers about $97 million a year. The top rate in Arkansas would be lower than in Louisiana, South Carolina and Georgia and equal to the top rate in Missouri.

The tax cut reduction is in Senate Bill 211, which will go first to the Senate Committee on Revenue and Taxation for review by committee members and for public comment.

SB 211 is the culmination of two years of work that began soon after the General Assembly adjourned the 2017 regular session. One goal of SB 211 is to provide tax relief to the taxpayers who were not included in the major tax cuts enacted by the legislature in 2015 and 2017.

The legislature lowered taxes for middle-income families in 2015, saving them about $100 million a year. The legislature next focused on low-income families, who saved about $50 million a year from tax cuts enacted in 2017.

Also, the Senate approved SB 17 to reduce the fee for a permit to carry a concealed handgun. It would lower the current fee of $100 to $50, and for applicants who are aged 65 or older the fee would drop from $50 to $25.

The House Judiciary Committee gave SB 17 a do-pass recommendation, so the next step is a vote in the entire House.

The Senate approved SB 153 to establish more rigorous reading and literacy standards. Schools would have to include scientific reading methods in a literacy plan, which would have to be included in their annual school improvement plans.

The goal is to train and equip teachers with the materials necessary to bring up literacy rates. One method would be to more efficiently diagnose students who have dyslexia, and then to re-structure their reading classes accordingly. On standardized tests, only 38 percent of Arkansas third graders score at “ready” or “exceeding” in reading.

The Senate approved Senate Joint Resolution 3 calling for Congress to call a constitutional convention, which could consider amendments to establish fiscal restraints on the federal government and limits on terms of members of Congress.

Firefighters have an interest in a couple of bills that have been introduced. House Bill 1299 would provide firefighters with a year of paid sick leave if they are diagnosed with certain types of cancer. It was referred to the House Committee on City, County and Local Affairs.

The bill adds “cancer leave,” to the types of leave that a firefighter with five years’ experience can receive. It lists types of cancer that firefighters are more likely to get, compared to the general population, because of repeated exposure to hazardous substances and carcinogens.

SB 168, which was endorsed in committee and brought to the entire Senate, would add fire stations to the Arkansas Safe Haven law. It lists locations such as police departments and hospitals as places where people can leave newborn infants without risking prosecution for child endangerment.

January 25, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The 92nd General Assembly got off to a quick start. Among the measures voted on during the opening days of the 2019 legislative were bills of interest to Arkansas city officials.

By a 33-to-1 vote, the Senate approved legislation to allow cities to accept legal payments through a credit card or debit card. The city can enter a contract with a credit card company to operate the system, and the city would pay the ordinary “swipe fees” to the credit card company, as retailers do.

The senator who voted against the bill wanted a limit on the transactions fees that cities may charge. The bill is SB 98, and it now goes to the House of Representatives.

The House Committee on City, County and Local Affairs advanced legislation that raises the threshold at which cities must seek bids before they make a purchase, from $20,000 to $50,000.

The bill allows cities to avoid the process of competitive bidding in exceptional situations, such as after tornadoes or natural disasters. The city could waive the usual bid process if it were deemed not feasible or practical. The bill is HB 1041.

Another House committee advanced a package of five bills to tighten the state’s process of purchasing goods and entering contracts. The bills are the product of a lengthy study by the Review Committee into procurement procedures used by state agencies. The committee hired a consultant to do much of the research.

The House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee endorsed these five bills:

– HB 1161 to define what constitutes a material change in a contract of more than $100,000. Contracts between a state agency and a vendor that do not change don’t come under the same degree of legislative scrutiny as contracts that undergo material changes.

– HB 1162 to require objective performance standards in contracts for services if they cost the state more than $1 million a year or $7 million total.

– HB 1179 to set out criteria that a losing bidder may follow to protest the awarding of a contract to a competitor.

– HB 1180 tightens the rules under which agencies can enter cooperative purchasing contracts.

– HB 1181 to prevent a firm from submitting a bid for projects with the state if it is currently under contract with the state and there are outstanding material issues, such as delays in completing the work.

In a unanimous vote, the Senate approved SB 4 to create a legislative task force that will focus on veterans’ issues, particularly the high rate of suicides by veterans. The task force will also study the availability of mental health care. It will issue a report to the General Assembly in time for action during the 2021 regular session.

The House approved HB 1177 to regulate the use of microchips by companies that wish to have them surgically implanted in workers for security, or other reasons.

Also this week, senators got their first look at legislation to reorganize state government, reducing the number of cabinet-level agencies from 42 to 15 and saving taxpayers about $15 million a year through greater efficiency.

January 18, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The 92nd General Assembly began with the traditional combination of ceremonial activities and then immediately getting down to business.

Newly elected senators took the oath of office, administered by the chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court.

The governor addressed a joint session of the Senate and the House, laying out his legislative agenda.

Legislators filed more than 300 bills and referred them to committee for debate and to get input from the public.

HB 1145 would raise minimum teacher salaries over the next four years, from $31,400 to $36,000 a year. For teachers with a master’s degree, the minimum salary would go from $36,050 to $40,650.

The bill also would raise minimum salaries for other teachers. For example, the minimum salary for a teacher with eight years’ experience would go from $35,000 to $36,400 a year in the 2019-2020 school year.

HB 1145 is sponsored by the chairman of the House Education Committee, to which it was referred for initial consideration.

Two other bills, HB 1165 and HB 1166, would implement a broad restructuring of state government, in order to reduce the number of cabinet level agencies from 42 to 15. They were referred to the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

Senate Bill 17, to reduce by half the fees for permits to carry a concealed handgun, was referred to the Senate Committee on City, County and Local Affairs.

SB 4 would create a task force of legislators on issues affecting veterans, with a special focus on preventing suicides and improving access to mental health care. The bill was sent to the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.

Senate Joint Resolution 1, also referred to the Senate State Agencies Committee, would place on next year’s ballot a proposed amendment to repeal fiscal sessions of the legislature.

The first substantive bill approved by the legislature is the General Appropriation Act. Under Article 5 of the state Constitution, the legislature must enact the measure before it passes any other budget bill.

The Constitution mandates that it be passed by a three-fourths majority before any other appropriations are voted on, otherwise they will not be lawful.

In 1989 the legislature had to meet in emergency special session, called by then-Governor Bill Clinton, to hurriedly re-enact about 300 appropriations that had been ruled unconstitutional by the state Supreme Court.

That was necessary because during the regular session earlier in the year, the General Appropriation Act was passed but without a 75 percent supermajority. A lawsuit resulted in the Supreme Court striking all the budget measures.

Lawmakers met in a late June special session. They first enacted the General Appropriations Act by a three-fourths majority and then they enacted appropriations for all state agencies, higher education and public schools.

That special session convened on June 22, 1989, which gave the legislature only a week to complete its work on hundreds of bills by the end of the fiscal year, which was June 30.

January 11, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – The regular session of 2019 will be remembered for the number of far-reaching and significant issues that legislators resolved.

At the top of the list is a package of tax bills developed by legislators on the Tax Reform and Relief Legislative Task Force. They have been working on a list of tax relief and fairness bills since the 2017 regular session. Of all the bills in the task force’s list of recommendations, the one with the highest profile is a proposed reduction in state income taxes. It also would simplify the income tax tables.

Legislators and tax officials are calling the proposal the “two – four – five point nine” plan. That’s because it would phase in rates for all taxpayers of 2 percent, 4 percent and 5.9 percent.

The governor is proposing an income tax reduction that closely aligns with the recommendations of the legislative task force. His proposal would save Arkansas taxpayers more than $111 million a year.

Increases in the minimum teacher salary will garner public attention. The legislature’s Committees on Education have voted on a school funding bill that calls for an increase in minimum salaries of $1,000 in each of the next two years.

That is similar to the governor’s proposal to set aside $60 million for gradual increases in teacher salaries over the next four years, to bring the minimum from its current $31,800 to $36,000 a year.

The governor has proposed reducing the number of state agencies from 42 to 15. By 2021 the savings from efficiency would be $15 million a year, and likely would grow over time.

Bills to implement the reorganization will be referred to the Senate State Agencies Committee.

State Agencies already is one of the busiest committees because it considers proposed constitutional amendments to refer to the ballot. In each regular session, legislators may refer up to three proposed amendments for voters to decide in the statewide election. Amendments proposed this session will be on the ballot in November, 2020.

There likely will be legislation to strengthen ethics laws and improve transparency. For example, two separate senate bills have been filed, SB 52 and SB 53, which would prohibit elected officials from collecting retirement benefits if they are convicted of a felony arising from their actions as an elected official.

The Arkansas Department of Human Services administers the Medicaid program, a health care plan for people with disabilities, senior citizens in long term care facilities and low-income families. In every session there is vigorous debate as legislators make changes to eligibility criteria.

Any changes in Medicaid have ramifications throughout state government, because Medicaid represents such a large portion of the state’s total expenditures. Increases in Medicaid spending make it difficult to increase funding for schools, higher education and prisons.

Also this session, legislators will work on a highway funding program, which may be referred to voters in a statewide election. It is a higher priority for legislators in certain areas of the state where highway improvements have not kept up with population growth.

Legislators will spend much of their time writing budgets for state agencies for Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021. The state general revenue fund, which is the major source of legislators’ discretionary spending, will be about $5.75 billion next fiscal year.

January 4, 2019

LITTLE ROCK – Legislators have begun pre-filing bills in anticipation of the regular session that begins January 14.

So far, 93 House bills and 40 Senate bills have been introduced. Those numbers will continue to go up each day. In the most recent regular session of 2017, legislators filed 1,280 House bills and 789 Senate bills. Of those, 1,127 became law.

Tax reform bills will get a lot of attention this year, mainly because a task force has worked for two years to build a consensus on a package of bills that will simplify and lower state income taxes.

Three high-profile bills that have already been pre-filed are HB 1070, HB 1071 and HB 1072. They have the support of the governor and they would reduce the number of cabinet-level agencies in state government from 42 to 15.

Another high-profile bill is HB 1002. It would authorize the state to collect sales taxes on purchases made over the Internet. A United States Supreme Court ruling cleared the way for states to collect sales taxes from out-of-state merchants who don’t have a physical presence in the state.

HB 1034 would increase the homestead property tax credit from $350 to $375.

Every regular session includes a long list of bills affecting education. So far, bills have been filed to update and strengthen training requirements for school board members, and to add a journalism requirement for Arkansas high schools. Another bill adds penalties for motorists who pass a stopped school bus that is picking up or dropping off students.

SB 17 reduces the license fee for a permit to carry a concealed firearm, from $100 to $50. For people over 65, the bill would lower the fee from $50 to $25. Renewal fees would go down from $35 to $25.

Roughly half of the bills introduced so far are sponsored by the Joint Budget Committee and are appropriations for various state agencies, boards and commissions. By the end of the session, an estimated 250 to 300 separate appropriation bills will be filed.

Legislation to raise minimum teacher salaries has not been introduced as yet, but can be expected soon. The governor and Senate and House Committees on Education have expressed support for pay raises of $1,000 a year.

HB 1007 would allow school districts to consider years of classroom experience in other states when they set teacher salaries.

In preparatory work leading up to the session, the Senate and House committees differed on how much the state should pay for districts’ special education programs.

Also, there will be discussion of changing how the state pays for transportation costs. Now, the state provides $321 per student to school districts for transportation. The cost of running school buses varies among different districts, depending on their geographic size, terrain and quality of roads.

A Senate Joint Resolution has been filed to allow Arkansas voters to change the state Constitution to repeal fiscal sessions, which are held in even-numbered years. If the legislature refers SJR 1 to the ballot, it would be decided by voters in the general election in November of 2020.

Until 2010 the Arkansas legislature met every two years. There were no fiscal sessions before then, and appropriations were effective for two years.

December 28, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – State government will get off to a fast start in 2019, when the legislature convenes in regular session on January 14 and takes up proposals to lower income taxes and simplify the tax tables.

Legislators and tax officials are calling the proposal the “two – four – five point nine” plan. That’s because it would phase in rates for all taxpayers of 2 percent, 4 percent and 5.9 percent.

One of the main questions is how quickly to implement the full amount of tax reductions. There are some who want to phase it in over four years, others prefer to do it in three years and some believe it can be fully implemented in two years.

Others want to proceed more cautiously with tax cuts, to make sure the reduction in state revenue does not force cutbacks in essential services.

There also are supporters of reducing the number of tax tables to one, instead of three.

Under the state Constitution the session must last for 60 days. Legislators may extend it, and in the past couple of decades they have generally lasted 80 to 90 days.

Also this year there will be heightened interest in the amount of teacher pay raises. The legislature appropriates funding for public schools, and to determine how much to spend on public education legislators conduct an adequacy assessment. It is a thorough review of the financial needs of public schools.

In this year’s adequacy report the Senate and House Committees on Education voted to recommend teacher pay raises of $1,000 a year, including raises for teachers with a master’s degree.

The adequacy report recommends another $1,000 raise for teachers in the second year of the biennium, which is Fiscal 2021.

The committee recommendations are similar to proposals by the governor to raise the minimum teacher salaries by $1,000 a year for the next four years. The plan would bring the minimum teacher salary from $31,800 to $36,000 a year.

Legislators on the Education Committees also recommended an increase in the school funding formula to allow for a general 2 percent increase in teacher salaries, in order to provide raises for teachers who earn more than the minimum.

Adding up all the categories, per pupil funding in FY 2020 should be $6,883, the Education Committees recommended. In FY 2021 it should go up to $6,985.

For the current biennium, the per pupil foundation funding rates are $6,713 in FY 2018 and $6,781 in FY 2019.

The governor has proposed reducing the number of state agencies from 42 to 15. By 2021 the savings would begin at about $15 million a year, and likely would grow over time.

Budget issues will dictate law enforcement policy, specifically regulations within state prisons and regulations governing parolees. For example, the governor has proposed adding 30 parole officers to the state Department of Community Corrections in order to lower their average caseload.

The department now employs 489 parole officers with an average caseload of 98. Adding 30 officers would lower their average to 90, according to the director of the department. Last year the department supervised more than 57,000 offenders on probation or parole.

December 21, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – The major political headlines of 2018 include voter approval of a constitutional amendment to allow casino gambling in four Arkansas locations.

Voters also approved an amendment to require citizens to present a government-issued photo ID in order to receive a ballot. An initiated act to gradually increase the minimum wage also was approved in the November election.

The four casinos are allowed in West Memphis, Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and Russellville. The minimum wage measure will increase the state minimum wage from $8.50 to $9.25 per hour in 2019, then to $10 per hour in 2020. Finally it would increase to $11 per hour in 2021.

The photo ID measure writes into the Constitution many provisions of voter fraud laws enacted by the legislature in recent years. Now that the requirements are in the Constitution, they can withstand lawsuits contending that they are unconstitutional.

An ongoing federal lawsuit has the potential to affect the state Medicaid program. Because Medicaid is such a large program, the lawsuit could affect the budgets of numerous other state agencies.

The lawsuit challenges Arkansas Medicaid regulations that require some participants to look for a job, volunteer or take adult education and job training classes in order to get benefits.

Since the requirements took effect, more than 12,000 people have been dropped from Medicaid rolls, and have been prohibited from re-enrolling until the end of the year.

The requirements apply to people in Arkansas Works, a Medicaid program for adults whose yearly income is below 138 percent of the federal poverty level.

Arkansas Works was formerly known as the private option and sometimes is referred to as Medicaid expansion.

It was originally established to comply with provisions in the federal affordable care act. The work requirements were essential in order to garner sufficient political support among conservatives in the legislature. Funding of Medicaid requires majorities of 75 percent in the Arkansas Senate and House.

All 75 counties in Arkansas, and the great majority of its towns and cities, have joined in a lawsuit against drug manufacturers and distributors of opioids, which are prescription painkillers that are highly addictive.

The state Drug Director told city officials the enormous volume of opioids being distributed in Arkansas makes enforcement and treatment extremely difficult.

For example, more than 235 million pills were prescribed in a single year, although Arkansas has a population of about three million. Opioids are painkillers such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine and fentanyl.

Also in 2018, a non-profit organization called Information Superhighway ranked Arkansas schools first in the nation in rankings of high speed Internet capacity. The Arkansas Public School Computer Network can now provide Internet service at a rate of one megabit per second per user to 98 percent of the state’s schools, which is more than any other state.

The Arkansas School Safety Commission recently submitted its final report. It was created in response to a school shooting in Florida.

The panel recommended that all schools have an armed person on campus whenever students are present. It also recommended improvements in how counselors and educators engage with students who have potential mental illnesses.

December 14, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – A new report from the U.S. Census Bureau had good news for Arkansas. The percentage of adults with a college degree has gone up by 2.9 percent.

In 2010 the percentage of adults in Arkansas with the equivalent of a bachelor’s degree was 19.1 percent, and last year it was 22 percent.

In spite of the improvement Arkansas is still below the national average. In 2017 the number of adults aged 22 or older who had a bachelor’s degree was 30.9 percent. In 2010 it was 27.9 percent.

Leaders in business, government and education have been working on policies that increase the rate of students who finish college with a degree, for the general prosperity of the state. On average, adults with a college degree earn more income over their lifetimes and they tend to lead healthier lifestyles.

Executives consistently say that we need a better-trained workforce in order to attract industries that are able to compete in the global economy. Knowledge-based industries, such as telecommunications and computer engineering, tend to pay more. Also, they tend to be more secure during economic disruptions.

A statewide policy change with the goal of improving college graduation rates was Act 148, which the legislature approved in 2017. It restructured the funding formula under which state aid is distributed to colleges and universities. Basically, it changed the formula so that retention and graduation rates drove the amount of state appropriations, rather than enrollment.

Three Arkansas counties are above the national average in their rates of adults with a college degree. They are Benton and Washington Counties in northwest Arkansas, with 31.7 and 31.9 percent. Pulaski County in central Arkansas has a rate of 33.7 percent.

According to the census report, more Arkansas high school students are graduating. Since 2010, the number of adults over 18 with a high school diploma has risen from 81.9 percent to 85.6 percent.

At the same time that a higher percentage of college students are finishing with a degree, fewer of our high school graduates are going on to college. Since 2013 the number of Arkansas high school graduates who go on to college has dropped, from 51.4 percent to 48.2 percent.

Enrollment in higher education is sensitive to the general state of the economy, especially at two-year colleges. When the economy is good and companies are hiring, people go to work. When the economy slackens and jobs become scarcer, people tend to enroll in college to improve their job skills.

Training for Computer Teachers

The governor announced the expansion of a program that provides stipends to teachers studying to be licensed in computer science. The governor approved the addition of $200,000 to the program, bringing the total available for stipends to $1 million.

Under the program, teachers from kindergarten through eighth grade can qualify for $2,000 in stipends.

In the summer of 2018, which was the first full year of the program, 301 teachers enrolled in the program and completed it. There is enough funding for another 200 teachers to take the training in the summer of 2019.

December 7, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – The 35-member Senate held its organizational meeting to elect leadership and formalize the rules for the 92nd General Assembly of the legislature, which convenes in regular session on January 14.

The changes in Senate rules will affect which committees will consider proposed legislation affecting alcohol, tobacco, firearms and medical marijuana.

Previously, bills that affect gun laws would go to the Senate Judiciary Committee. However, under the new rules they will be referred to the Senate Committee on City, County and Local Affairs.

Bills affecting tobacco and alcohol used to be referred to the Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs, but now they will go to the City, County and Local Affairs Committee.

Medical marijuana bills be referred to the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development. Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2016 legalizing medical marijuana.

In the 2017 session, much of the enabling legislation that put in place the mechanism for cultivation and retail sales of medical marijuana was referred to the Senate and House Committees on Public Health, Welfare and Labor.

The general consensus among senators was that the changes in rules were necessary in order to more evenly distribute the workload during the 2019 session. The committees on Public Health, Judiciary and State Agencies traditionally have very lengthy agendas.

The rules changes were adopted before senators chose their committee assignments, therefore individual senators with a particular interest in alcohol, tobacco, firearms or medical marijuana had the opportunity to choose the committees with jurisdiction over those issues.

The senators elected Senator Jim Hendren of Gravette as President Pro Tempore for the next two years. Senator Bart Hester of Cave Springs will be the Majority Leader and Senator Scott Flippo of Bull Shoals will be the Majority Whip. Senator Keith Ingram of West Memphis will be the Minority Leader and Senator Will Bond of Little Rock the Minority Whip.

Senator Larry Teague of Nashville will chair the Joint Budget Committee. Senator Jonathan Dismang of Beebe will chair the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee.

Senator Ronald Caldwell of Wynne will chair the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs and Senator Jason Rapert of Conway will chair the Senate Committee on Insurance and Commerce. The Senate Judiciary Chairman will be Senate Alan Clark of Lonsdale. Senator Gary Stubblefield of Branch will chair the Senate Committee on City, County and Local Affairs.

Senator Missy Irvin of Mountain View will chair the Senate Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee and Senator John Cooper of Jonesboro will chair the Senate Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Committee.

The Senate Education Committee will be chaired by Senator Jane English of North Little Rock. Senator Blake Johnson of Corning will chair the Senate Committee on Transportation, Technology and Legislative Affairs. Senator Bill Sample of Hot Springs will be co-chair of the Public Retirement and Social Security Committee. Senator Cecile Bledsoe of Rogers will be the Senate co-chair of the Legislative Council, and Senator Rapert will be the Senate co-chair of the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee.

November 30, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Tax Reform and Relief Legislative Task Force is working until the proverbial last minute to finalize a package of recommendations for the regular session of the legislature, which begins January 14.

A few details remain to be ironed out, but it is highly likely that one recommendation will be a major reduction in individual income taxes.

The legislature created the 16-member task force during the 2017 session. Its purpose is to recommend bills that will modernize and simplify the tax code, while encouraging job creation.

The act that created the task force specifically directed its members to ensure fairness to all individuals and businesses that pay taxes in Arkansas. Also, recommendations should have the purpose of making our taxes competitive with other states, in order to attract businesses to Arkansas.

Over the past two years the task force has met regularly and sometimes at great length. December 12 may be its final meeting. After that, the task force will forward a package of recommendations to the entire General Assembly. They will be introduced as bills and referred to the Senate and House Committees on Revenue and Taxation.

The recommended tax cuts would begin to take effect on January 1, 2020.

While the task force has been working on its version of an income tax cut, the governor and his administration have also been building support for an income tax cut.

The governor’s plan is similar in many ways to the task force proposal, but not completely identical.

Both the governor’s proposal and the task force’s recommendation would simplify the income tax codes, while lowering the tax burden paid by Arkansas families.

Task force members and state tax officials commonly refer to the legislative proposal as “Option A,” to distinguish it from several other options that were considered.

They refer to the governor’s tax cut proposal as the “2, 4, 5.9” plan, because it would lower income tax rates to 2 percent for people who earn up to $8,000 a year, 4 percent for those who earn between $8,001 and $18,000 a year and 5.9 percent for people who earn more than $18,000 a year.

Those rates would be phased in gradually. Legislative leaders have said they want to protect the state budget from a drastic shortfall that would negatively affect its capacity to provide essential services. For that reason, the task force has been studying possible “triggers.” In other words, certain tax cuts would not take effect until a designated “trigger” occurs, such as revenue growth reaching 2 percent.

Also, the tax force heard from tax officials in other states. The intent was to model Arkansas reforms after states that were successful, such as North Carolina and Indiana.

Also, Arkansas wants to avoid the experiences of Kansas and Oklahoma, where tax cuts were a factor when declines in revenue created problems in school funding.

Because of unique language in the state Constitution, some tax measures require a 75 percent majority of legislators for approval, while others require simply a 51 percent majority.

The different thresholds will affect the strategies employed by sponsors of tax cut legislation.

November 23, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – Every year Arkansas judges send about 350 youths into state custody. Some are sent to a secure lockup and some to a less restrictive environment, such as a group home.

The state Division of Youth Services (DYS), an agency within the much larger Department of Human Services, is responsible for those facilities.

Earlier this month, DYS officials and the governor announced that they had begun far-reaching changes in how the state treats troubled adolescents. Fewer young people will be sent to lockups and more will be supervised in community group homes.

Teenagers who get in trouble and are placed in state custody will be assessed without delay. A treatment plan will be written individually for each juvenile, and its effectiveness will be measured regularly. DYS officials will involve families from the beginning, with the goal of preparing the youth for his or her eventual release back into the community.

The news was greeted with enthusiasm by non-profit groups that work with young people. For example, Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families publicly thanked the governor and DYS for making the changes, which the organization said were long overdue.

The director of a group with the authority to monitor treatment of juveniles called the changes a “first step” and pledged to hold the administration accountable.

The governor called the changes “monumental,” adding that they would “fundamentally shift” the state’s approach toward young people who get in trouble with the law.

The focus will be on treating juveniles in the least restrictive settings, rather than punishing them by locking them in a secure unit. The new approach recognizes that the majority of youths in DYS custody committed non-violent offenses.

There are now seven facilities across Arkansas where juvenile offenders are placed. They’re in Alexander, Colt, Dermott, Harrisburg, Lewisville and two at Mansfield. The Juvenile Treatment Center at Dermott facility will be closed by June 30 of next year. It has 32 beds. The Colt center will be combined with the one in Harrisburg, which will be an all-female facility. It will expand from 26 beds to 32 beds.

The total number of beds in DYS residential treatment centers will decrease from 285 to 262. The total number of slots in specialized residential treatment programs will increase from 90 to 111 beds. Funding will be shifted accordingly.

Over time, the changes are expected to save the state money because they will reduce the use of confinement and commitment, which cost more than community programs. The purpose is to provide opportunities for non-violent offenders, such as vocational training and education, so that they successfully return to their homes. DYS custody should not be an inevitable first step toward prison time as an adult.

Juveniles who don’t need to be locked up should be better served under the new approach, while DYS staff will be able to focus more attention on the especially tough cases of troubled and potentially dangerous offenders.

The remaining five residential treatment facilities are currently run by state employees working for DYS. However, the division is preparing to privatize their operations, and will be seeking bids from private organizations in December.

November 16, 2018

During legislative budget hearings, the governor presented his balanced budget plan for the next biennium, Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021.

The highlights of the proposed budget include a cut in income taxes, an increase in minimum teacher salaries and the hiring of 24 additional State Troopers and 30 parole officers.

The state would add $30.8 million to the Public School Fund, an increase of 1.4 percent over this year. The governor also proposed increasing the Public School Fund by 2.5 percent in the second year of the biennium, Fiscal Year 2021.

Providing adequate funds for public schools is the single, largest category of expenditure of state tax revenue. Human Services is the second largest category, and it is supplemented by much greater amounts of federal matching funds.

In the second year of the biennium, state government would reap about $7.5 million in savings under his plan to reduce the number of cabinet agencies from 42 to 15, the governor said. The details of the proposed restructuring must be approved by the legislature.

The governor proposed an income tax reduction that would provide about $111 million in tax relief after they take effect. His administration worked closely with the Tax Reform and Relief Legislative Task Force on the tax cut plan. The top rate would go from 6.9 percent to 6.5 percent next year, and 6.3 percent the following year. The plan would simplify the state’s income tax tables and also lower taxes by increasing the standard deduction.

The minimum teacher salary in 174 school districts would gradually go up to $36,000 over the next four years, under a proposal by the governor. The state minimum is now $31,800, but many districts pay more than that. The cost for the teacher pay raise is an estimated $60 million a year, which the state would provide.

The Department of Community Correction now employs 489 parole officers with an average caseload of 98. Adding 30 officers would lower the average to 90, the director of the department said. Last year the department supervised more than 57,000 offenders on probation or parole.

The administration also presented its official forecast for next fiscal year. An indication of the good general health of the Arkansas economy is that the state’s gross general revenue is expected to grow by 2.9 percent, according to economists at the Department of Finance and Administration.

The current fiscal year began on July 1 and will end on June 30, 2019. If the economy continues in its current state, growth this year will be 2.8 percent over last year.

Legislators will use the proposal as a framework on which to build a spending plan for state government. They are holding budget hearings in preparation for the regular session that convenes on January 14, and will continue working on state agency spending requests throughout the session. An official state budget for next fiscal year won’t be complete until the session’s final days, likely in late March.

Under the Constitution, the legislature has the duty of appropriating state revenue for the operations of state agencies, and for providing state services such as education.

November 9, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – When the Arkansas legislature convenes in regular session in January for the state’s 92nd General Assembly, the 35-member Senate will have 26 Republicans and nine Democrats. That ratio did not change after this year’s elections.

The Senate will have seven women and three African-Americans.

Political and demographic influences shape the philosophies of individual senators, but also of importance are their personal backgrounds. As it has been since the state’s inception, the General Assembly in Arkansas is a citizen legislature.

The 2019 regular session will last about three months, then the senators will return to their hometowns, their jobs and their businesses. They are not professional politicians.

Ten senators run their own businesses and four work in economic development. Four senators are farmers, two are bankers and two have experience in the insurance industry and financial services. Three senators have worked in the medical field or long term care.

Three senators are in real estate and development. Four are retired or former teachers. One has a background in forestry, another in accounting. Two have backgrounds in electronics. One senator is in graphic arts and design, another is in the marketing field and another is a chaplain and pastor in hospice care.

The expertise the 35 senators will bring to public policy issues covers the spectrum of the social and economic levels of Arkansas.

One senator played football for the University of Arkansas Razorbacks; another played baseball for the Razorbacks. Another senator rode bulls in the rodeo for four years.

The major budget issues the legislature determines in every session include funding of public schools and institutions of higher education, highway and bridge maintenance, health services and state prisons.

According to the results of the most recent census, each member of the state Senate represents about 83,300 people.

The 2019 regular session will convene on the second Monday of the year, January 14, and will last for at least 60 days. Under the state Constitution, the legislature may extend it, and in recent decades regular sessions usually last 80 to 90 days.

Revenue Report

State budget officials reported that in October, revenue collections exceeded forecasts. That is an accurate gauge of the Arkansas economy, because tax rates have remained unchanged and thus any increase in tax revenue is due to an increase in economic activity.

The state fiscal year began on July 1, and revenue has exceeded forecasts for each of the first four months of the fiscal year. Two specific categories point to economic health; sales tax collections were up, meaning that consumers were confident and purchasing more, while the growth in individual income taxes indicates more people are working.

This year the state will collect more than $6.7 billion in state taxes that will go into its general revenue fund. The state will receive more than $7.5 billion in federal funds, and although the federal government has broad authority in how those funds are directed, state officials administer the spending of it.

The state will spend special revenue from taxes dedicated for specific purposes, such as motor fuels taxes for highway repairs. Also, the state has revenue from cash funds, such as college tuition payments. Last fiscal year, total state expenditures were more than $25 billion.

November 2, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas has 1,034 public schools and each one recently received a letter grade, from A to F, to give parents an easy method of evaluating them,

The release of school report cards usually occurs in April, and it creates quite a bit of discussion among principals, administrators, elected officials and of course, parents.

This year, the state Education Department worked with extra diligence to produce the report card six months earlier than usual. One reason was that school staff had requested more timely reports, so that they could more quickly use the information in the report cards to improve their schools.

Failing schools can apply for support from state and federal sources, and the sooner they apply the sooner their students will reap the benefits of added resources. They can use the information in the reports to improve this school year, and not have to wait until next year.

This year, the number of schools that received an A grade fell from 163 to 152. However, the number of schools that got a D grade also dropped, from 170 to 145. The number of failing schools that got an F increased from 33 in the 2016-2017 school year to 44 in the 2017-2018 school year.

Both this year and last year, a little more than a third of all Arkansas schools received a C grade. Last year 384 got a C and this year 380 got a C.

The number of schools receiving a B went up strongly, from 290 to 313.

The letter grades are based on numerous factors, including standardized test scores, student attendance, graduation rates and the proportion of students who read at their grade level.

The school report cards were released at the same time as a much more complex indicator of school success, the ESSA Index.

ESSA stands for the Every Student Succeeds Act, a 2015 federal law that took the place of controversial federal education standards known as the No Child Left Behind Act. Under the old federal standards, consistently getting low grades meant that a school could be penalized.

Schools that received low grades will not be penalized, the state Education Commissioner said. They will be offered extra help from the state Education Department.

The most recent ESSA School Index and school report card can both be found online at the Education Department’s My School Info page. It is at this web address: https://myschoolinfo.arkansas.gov/

You can find the page with an Internet search engine, such as Google, Yahoo and Bing, by typing in My School Info and Arkansas.

The web page has search features so that you can look up specific reports for your children’s school. It also has instructional videos, on the right side of the page under a headline of “What’s New.” One of the videos will show you how to navigate the numerous links on the Education Department website that contain reports and comparisons.

The legislature approved Act 696 in 2013 to direct the Education Department to begin issuing school report cards, to make it easier for parents to evaluate their children’s schools. The first report cards were for the 2014-2015 school year.

Under Act 696, the Education Department considers schools that get an A as exemplary.  B schools are “achieving,” C schools “need improvement, D schools “need improvement – focus” and F schools “need improvement – priority.”

October 26, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – Thanks to a concentrated effort over the past two years, the Arkansas foster care system has shown several notable improvements.

A 14 percent decline in the number of children in the system is the most important evidence of improvement. In late 2016 there were 5,196 children in foster care and today there are 4,471.

The 14 percent decrease goes hand in hand with another improvement: the proportion of children who are placed with relatives has increased from 23 percent to 27 percent. Of all the children who are placed with relatives, more than a third are placed on the same day they are removed from their parents.

Another improvement is that 82 percent of foster children are now placed in a family setting, as opposed to a group home. In late 2016 the percentage was 78 percent.

The state Division of Children and Family Services runs the foster care system. In 2016 a child welfare expert issued an alarming report on the status of the agency, where high caseloads and a seeming lack of support contributed to inordinately high employee turnover.

The effect was that the number of foster children was growing alarmingly, because employees were not processing many of their cases in a timely manner.

The governor proposed a budget increase for the Division, and the legislature approved funding for more staff. As a result, the Division has added 187 new positions over the past two years, bringing the total number of authorized positions within the Division to 1,215 for Fiscal Year 2018.

Adding staff meant that those who work directly with families have seen a decrease in caseloads, from 28 to 20.

The turnover rate went down from 48 to 41 percent, which is still too high. Staff with experience are better able to assess a families’ needs, and to work with them on solutions.

In 2016 attorneys for the Division also had high caseloads. Last year they averaged 115 cases for each attorney, and the turnover rate for attorneys was 60 percent.

The Division added two attorneys and two legal support staff, from other areas within the Department of Human Services. Caseloads for attorneys went down to 99, and the turnover rate dropped to 26 percent.

The ultimate goal is to reduce the number of children who suffer from abuse and neglect, therefore the challenge for the Division is to focus the efforts of its staff on approaches that are the most effective.

With that in mind, it expanded a proven program called Nurturing Families of Arkansas. It is an intensive program teaching parents how to be better. It used to be for families with children between five and 11, but has been expanded to include families with children up to 18.

SafeCare is another program teaching parents about health and child safety. It also teaches communication between parent and child, as a means to reduce physical abuse and neglect.

Family service workers try to connect families to informal and formal support systems. They may include relatives, churches and social organizations. They coach children to improve their behavior, and they help parents improve their ability to communicate with their children’s teachers.

October 19, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature has begun budget hearings in preparation for the 2019 regular session.

Generally, budget bills do not generate as much publicity as high-profile social measures, such as bills affecting firearms, unborn children or school choice. However, for many legislators the most time-consuming responsibility is consideration of state agency budgets.

Lawmakers begin work on budgets in mid-October, and put the finishing touches on the state’s budget in March of the following year, in the final days of the session. The 2019 legislative session begins on January 14.

State government is in Fiscal Year 2019, which will end on June 30, 2019. Legislators are now working on proposed budgets for Fiscal Year 2020, which begins on July 1, 2019.

The state general revenue budget for this year is about $5.63 billion, and at the end of the fiscal year there will be an estimated surplus of about $64 million. One of the challenges for lawmakers will be to estimate how much the Arkansas economy will expand next year. That estimate will determine how much state agencies will have to spend.

A red letter date is November 14, when the governor presents a balanced budget plan for next fiscal year, based on the most recent revenue forecast. The governor’s balanced budget proposal will also set the stage for serious discussions about tax cuts, and how much income tax relief is possible.

The proposed balanced budget will be the starting point for debate over fiscal matters, such as how much to spend on public education and school safety, how much should the Medicaid program receive and whether any state agencies should get a greater budget increase than all the others.

It is not unusual for an agency to receive a bigger-than-average increase in funding, compared to the rest of state government. For example, in 2017 the governor proposed and the legislature approved funding increases for the foster care system that were proportionately much greater than increases approved for other agencies. The goal was to reverse a recent trend of high turnover among staff, and extended periods in which children had to wait for placement with foster families.

This year there are 36,516 authorized employee positions in state government, and another 39,878 positions in higher education.

Public schools from kindergarten through grade 12 receive the single largest share of state general revenue, about 41 percent, but teachers and other school staff are not counted among the total of state government employees.

The largest agency is the Department of Human Services, with 8,357 employees spread throughout various divisions. The largest branch within the department is the Division of Developmental Disabilities Services, with 2,597 positions.

The Department of Transportation, which maintains highways, has 4,712 positions. The Correction Department, which runs prisons, has 4,740 positions and the Department of Community Correction, which hires parole officers and staffs halfway houses and drug courts, has 1,488 positions.

Law enforcement also is provided by three other state agencies. There are 1,063 employee positions in the Arkansas State Police and 144 in the state Crime Lab. The Arkansas Crime Information Center (ACIC) does criminal background checks and runs license numbers for local police departments and law enforcement agencies. It also keeps the sex offender registry up to date. ACIC has 74 authorized positions.

October 12, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – Depending on the outcome of legal challenges that are being considered by the state Supreme Court, Arkansas voters could decide five ballot issues at the November 6 general election.

The legislature referred Issue One and Issue Two to the ballot during last year’s regular session. The other three issues were brought to the ballot by citizens’ groups that gathered signatures of registered voters on petitions.

The first four issues are proposed amendments to the state Constitution. The fifth is a proposed initiated act; approval by voters would place it in the statute books but not in the Constitution. The process of changing a statute is simpler than changing a constitutional amendment. It is less time consuming and less expensive, too.

Issue One would cap attorneys’ fees and the amounts that plaintiffs can be awarded in a civil case. Contingency fees for attorneys would be limited to a third of the net recovery for plaintiffs. Punitive damages would be limited to $500,000, or three times the amount of compensatory damages, whichever is greater.

The legislature could raise the cap on damages by an extraordinary majority of two-thirds of the membership of each chamber. The legislature could not lower the cap.

Opponents of the ballot measure were successful at the lower court level, when a circuit judge ruled that the various sections of the proposed amendment do not relate to each other, thus making the overall impact unclear.

For that reason he ruled that no votes should be counted, either for or against Issue One. However, his ruling is on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

Issue Two would require voters to present a government-issued photo ID in order to cast a ballot. So far there have been no legal challenges filed against Issue Two being on the ballot.

Issue Three would limit terms of elected officials even more than under our current term limits amendment.

The measure was stricken from the ballot by a special master appointed by the Supreme Court, who ruled that petitions submitted by supporters did not have enough signatures of registered voters. The Supreme Court will review the master’s findings.

Issue Four would expand legal gambling in Arkansas. It would authorize two new casinos – one in Jefferson County within two miles of Pine Bluff and another in Pope County within two miles of Russellville.

Issue Four, if approved by voters, also would authorize casinos adjacent to the dog racing track in West Memphis and adjacent to the horse racing track in Hot Springs. This ballot measure is being challenged in court.

The Supreme Court rejected two legal challenges to Issue Four, thus clearing the way for the measure to remain on the ballot.

Issue Five, the proposed initiated act, would raise the state minimum wage. It would go from $8.50 to $9.25 per hour in 2019, then to $10 per hour in 2020. Finally it would increase to $11 per hour in 2021. A special master has approved Issue Five for the November ballot, but the Supreme Court will review that ruling.

A proposal to increase the state’s minimum wage was on the ballot in 2014 and voters approved it by a vote of 66 percent to 34 percent. It phased in a minimum wage increase of $2.25 an hour, over a three-year period.

October 5, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – Since 2015, when the legislature approved Act 187 to upgrade the computer capacity of public schools, Arkansas has moved to the head of the class in national rankings.

The Arkansas Public School Computer Network can now provide Internet service at a rate of one megabit per second per user to 98 percent of the state’s schools.

That is more than any other state, according to a non-profit organization called Information Superhighway, which works to upgrade and expand computer access in public schools.

Act 187 required every Arkansas high school, including charters, to offer at least one computer science class. It also created a task force of educators, science teachers and people with expertise in computers.  Its duty was to ensure that computer courses are up to date and of the highest caliber.

The act was part of the governor’s legislative package. The progress made by Arkansas schools is even more impressive considering where they were before 2015.

In a 2011 study, 80 percent of educational administrators reported that their schools had problems with bandwidth that prevented them from offering computer and technology courses. They had to restrict student access to school computers because of a lack of bandwidth.

One problem was that too many schools relied on copper lines, which had been sufficient but had become obsolete. They were replaced with fiber optic cables, which can transmit much more data and will be able to better meet future demands.

Providing bandwidth in all areas of the state is significant because it helps level the playing field between rich and poor districts, as well as between urban and rural districts.

Academic success in the modern classroom is a parallel journey to success later in life in the modern economy. Technical skills, particularly in computers and telecommunication, are essential.

The expansion of broadband capacity resulting from Act 187 has meant that an additional 115,000 Arkansas children have access to high speed Internet.

Providing Internet access to schools throughout Arkansas was accomplished with funding from federal and state governments, as well as local school districts. They contracted with a coalition of 21 service providers.

The cost of purchasing broadband capability in Arkansas has been going down. In 2015 it cost $14 to provide 1 mbps and today it costs less than two dollars. Lower costs were a factor that allowed Arkansas officials to expand school network capacity by an average of 40 percent.

Government programs for expansion of bandwidth in schools go by a variety of acronyms, such as E-rate 2.0, Connect Ed, BTOP and Ed-Fi. The federal government provided $30 million for Internet in Arkansas schools, and there are 55 school districts that can access $8.3 million before the end of the year.

Revenue Report

The Arkansas economy was healthy during the first three months of the state fiscal year, judging by state general revenue collections. Gross collections were up 4.9 percent over the first three months of last fiscal year.

The increase was driven by strong collections of individual and corporate income taxes, as well as sales taxes, according to the director of the state Department of Finance and Administration. Increased revenue is an accurate gauge of increased economic activity because tax rates have not gone up.

September 28, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – An advisory committee has spent the past year studying the efficiency of how the state pays for improvements to public school facilities.

The advisory panel is made up of educators, contractors, engineers and architects. It recommended to the legislature’s Education Committees that the state provide $90 million next fiscal year. This amount would provide incentives for local school districts and continue the progress that Arkansas schools have made since 2005 in upgrading school campuses.

Lawmakers on the Senate and House Education Committees will take up the recommendation, although a final decision on the amount of facilities funding will be up to the entire General Assembly.

Legislative budget hearings begin in October, in preparation for the regular session that begins in January.

Some elected officials believe that current funding amounts for school facilities cannot be sustained over the long term. Others say that the state is obligated to comply with its constitutional mandate to provide adequate academic facilities for all children in Arkansas, regardless of where they live.

That mandate in the Constitution was a reason why the state Supreme Court ruled in favor of plaintiffs in the Lake View school funding lawsuit, and ordered the state to correct inequalities in school funding. In response, in 2005 the General Assembly authorized a massive spending program that has contributed to tremendous improvements in school facilities throughout the state.

Since 2004, the state and local school districts have spent more than $6 billion on facilities construction and improvements. Of that amount, 81 percent came from local sources, 15 percent came from the state and 4 percent from the federal government.

The national average of states’ share of facilities costs is 18 percent. There are 12 states that contribute nothing directly to the cost of local schools capital campaigns, and two states that cover all of their capital costs.

More than 1,500 old school buildings have been retired. For example, in 2004 there were more than 500 school buildings in use in Arkansas that were built before 1950. That number has been reduced by half.

Since 2000, more than 1,600 new structures have been built and more than 22 million square feet of academic space has been added to Arkansas schools. In a survey of principals, 65 percent said their facilities were about the right size and 4 percent reported that they had more space than they needed. The other 30 percent reported that their school space was inadequate, or was poorly distributed.

On average, local districts exceed the minimum effort required by state law to maintain and operate facilities, which is 9 percent of their foundation funding. Last year that 9 percent amounted to $375 million statewide. However, local schools actually spent $475 million, or 11.4 percent of foundation funding, on maintenance and operations.

Another political battle could take place if the legislature considers changing the wealth index, a formula that determines the percentage of state funds that go into individual construction projects. The advisory committee heard concerns about the fairness of the index, especially how it treats small districts that have seen enrollment go down.

September 21, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – Enrollment at Arkansas colleges and universities is down slightly from last year.

All institutions must submit a preliminary report on enrollment to the state Department of Higher Education on the 11th day of classes. Those figures will change as the semester progresses, because of transfers and dropouts. However, from one year to the next they present a snapshot of higher education rates in Arkansas.

Keeping track of the number of students in college is not merely an academic exercise. It’s an economic issue for civic and business leaders, who understand that college graduates will be the future economic foundation of the state.

These days, corporate executives say that there are numerous highly paid jobs available, but a lack of skilled workers to fill them. This scenario presents a new and different set of challenges for policy makers than what they faced a generation ago, when the problem was to create enough well paid jobs to keep our brightest young people in the state.

Now, legislators and educators are working to increase graduation rates. A new higher education funding formula was approved by the legislature last year. Rather than rewarding enrollment growth, the new funding model rewards institutions that retain students and graduate them.

The effect of the new funding formula is reflected in the enrollment figures submitted by Arkansas colleges and universities.

Total numbers are down slightly at Arkansas State University in Jonesboro (-0.6 percent) and the University of Central Arkansas at Conway (-1.5 percent).

Growth is slower than usual at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville (0.8 percent). Over the past five years growth at Fayetteville is up 9.6 percent.

Officials at all the campuses pointed out the high academic standards of the incoming freshman class.

The freshmen at ASU scored an average of 24 on the ACT and their composite grade point average in high school was 3.56. At Fayetteville the average ACT score for freshmen is 26.2 and their high school GPA was 3.69. At UCA the composite ACT score for freshmen is 24.4 and the high school GPA is 3.55.

Enrollment at Southern Arkansas University at Magnolia was down 3.8 percent this year, but over the past five years it has grown by 31.3 percent. At the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith it was down 0.9 percent. At the University of Arkansas at Little Rock it was down 9.5 percent. At the University of Arkansas at Monticello it was down 13.2 percent.

The University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff has growth of 0.3 percent, Arkansas Tech at Russellville 2 percent and Henderson State at Arkadelphia 18.9 percent.

ASU emphasized improvement in the retention rate of last year’s freshmen. A record 76.6 percent of last year’s freshmen returned to campus this fall. ASU also noted the increase in minority students in this year’s freshman class. More than 10 percent of the class is African-American, and the number of African-Americans in the class jumped by 23 percent over last year.

The University of Arkansas at Fayetteville reported a 3.1 percent decrease in the total number of African-American students on campus, even though this year’s freshman class had an increase over last year. African-American students now make up 4.6 percent of the entire student body.

September 14, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – The state Department of Human Services announced that 4,353 Arkansans were no longer eligible for Medicaid benefits because over the past three months they failed to comply with work requirements.

Another 43,655 people met the work requirement and will retain their health coverage under Medicaid.

The news was the latest development in the long-running political struggle over the extent to which Arkansas should expand Medicaid, as required by federal mandates.

The federal law was enacted in 2010. It took several years and a number of lawsuits for the 50 states to implement its provisions.

Arkansas took a unique approach by making private health providers an integral part of the expanded Medicaid program. Lawmakers have adjusted our version of the health care act in each legislative session since the federal mandate was imposed. Currently, the program is known as Arkansas Works and it requires enrollees to either work, consistently look for work or attend classes that will teach job skills.

Two state agencies were present when the announcement was made – the Human Services Department because it administers Medicaid, and the Workforce Services Department because it provides the job hunting services required of enrollees.

For three months the 4,353 people who were removed from the Medicaid rolls failed to report their attendance at class, or their job schedules or any volunteer work that would have brought them in compliance.

Department officials announced that more than 5,000 people are in jeopardy of losing their benefits at the end of September because they have gone two months without complying with the work requirements.

Critics say that the requirements place too much of a burden on Medicaid recipients. For example, many recipients probably don’t have a computer, a smart phone or Internet access that is necessary to meet the requirements.

DHS officials defended their efforts to notify recipients of the requirements, and to help them respond. They sent 136,000 letters and made more than 150,000 phone calls. They sent text messages and in some cases visited people’s houses. They conducted training sessions and posted materials in doctors’ offices and emergency rooms.

Recipients who lack Internet access could get help by calling their insurance carrier, or visiting a county DHS office for help.

The people who lost coverage will be ineligible until the end of 2018, but they might qualify in other categories of Medicaid if their circumstances worsen, or if they are pregnant or have a disability.

Currently, the work requirement applies to enrollees from 30 to 49 years of age. They must work 80 hours a month, or take vo-tech classes. Up to 39 hours a month can be spent looking for work or attending a job search training class at a local Arkansas Workforce Center. Up to 20 hours in a year can be spent taking health education classes. Each hour spent volunteering counts as an hour of work.

It’s important to contact DHS when your economic circumstances change. In fact, it’s a good idea to keep in contact with DHS when people move in or out of your house, if a family member is discharged from a nursing home, or if you decide to claim a child as a dependent.

September 7, 2018

Legislators convened a special meeting to ask tough questions of prison officials after five inmates died of suspected drug overdoses within a few days.

The cause of their deaths is not official because autopsies have not been completed. However, it is widely believed that K2, a synthetic drug that mimics marijuana, was a factor. Prison systems throughout the country are trying to control the influx of K-2.

For example, in Arkansas prisons a new policy is in effect: mail is photocopied and shown to inmates because letters and correspondence can be laced with K-2.

The new mail policy was implemented after testing done by the state Crime Lab indicated that K2 confiscated at Arkansas prisons was on paper, not tobacco or marijuana. Someone outside prison had sprayed the chemicals on a letter or magazine, which inmates smoked or ate.

K2 is a variation of numerous chemicals and testing is expensive, and it’s challenging to keep up with the changes in its chemical composition. Sometimes a drug test or an autopsy does not point to K2, even though other evidence does.

Visitors to some units are not allowed contact with inmates. Also, prison officials told lawmakers, this year nine employees of the Correction Department have been terminated for trafficking.

The legislature’s Charitable, Penal and Correctional Institutions subcommittee asked for a report on the suspicious deaths, and prison officials told lawmakers that the number of confiscations of K-2 in 2018 is actually on pace to be 37 percent lower than last year.

Last year prison officials counted 1,136 incidents with K2, such as the drug being discovered and confiscated or an inmate getting sick or dying from an overdose. This year, if the number of incidents holds steady, there will be an estimated 712 incidents.

In addition to enhancing security and inspection measures, prison officials have expanded education programs both for inmates and their visitors, with the purpose of warning them of the dangers of K2.

Some officials would like to have authority to jam cell phone signals on prison property, because cell phones facilitate the delivery of all kinds of contraband.

It is commonly referred to as a synthetic form of marijuana, because of its effect on particular parts of the brain. As a result, drug users tend to use it as they would marijuana, and they fail to appreciate its toxicity. Some of the chemicals that have been discovered in K2 include nail polish remover and bug poison.

The Senate co-chairman of the subcommittee repeated her call for a thorough and independent auditing of prison procedures and policies, saying that the problems are not new.

The recent inmate deaths is notable for the number of men who died within a short period of time, but is part of a trend that is cause for concern among lawmakers. Last year there were 13 inmate deaths attributable to K2 and so far this year there have been six, not counting the recent spate of five deaths.

Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida are among many other states where prison officials are working to solve the problems caused by K2.

August 31, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – The state Constitution was adopted in 1874, but since then it has been amended 98 times.

Arkansas is one of 18 states that allow citizens to amend the constitution through a process that requires approval of the ballot title of the proposed amendment, followed by gathering signatures to have proposed amendments placed on the ballot. An amendment becomes part of the Constitution if voters approve it in a statewide election.

This year, two citizens’ groups have gained approval of ballot titles from the state attorney general’s office, and have turned in signatures to have proposed amendments placed on the November ballot. However, state officials are still verifying the signatures submitted with one of the proposals, to make sure that there are enough signatures of registered voters.

Also, a third group has turned in enough signatures to have an initiated act placed on the November ballot.

Even though both must be approved by voters to take effect, there is a significant difference between a constitutional amendment and an initiated act. The difference is in how they can be altered in the future.

After an amendment is approved by voters, it becomes part of the Constitution and the only way to change it would be for voters to approve a new amendment in a future statewide election. Examples are the several amendments that have changed and updated the state’s authority to issue revenue bonds and economic development bonds. Over the years, voters have approved amendments 62, 65, 78, 89, 90 and 97 to change the government’s authority to incur debt.

A simpler example would be the evolution of how libraries are funded. Amendment 72, adopted by voters in 1992, is known as the city and county library amendment. It changed amendments 30 and 38, two previous measures that authorized local taxes for libraries.

An initiated act does not become part of the Constitution. It can be amended, meaning that its provisions may be changed, by the legislature. It can even be repealed by the legislature.

Any change to an initiated act requires an extraordinary majority of 67 percent of legislators. An example is the act approved by voters in 1990 that created the state Ethics Commission.

Over time, the Ethics Commission’s jurisdiction over campaign finance laws has steadily grown, due to passage of new laws by the legislature. For example, the legislature approved Act 1287 of 2015 to add new definitions of conflict of interest that state officials must avoid. The act empowers the Ethics Commission to regulate and enforce the laws on conflicts of interest.

Between now and November, the ballot issues may be stricken because of legal challenges filed by opponents. If they remain on the ballot, there will be two proposed amendments and one proposed initiated act. The act would increase the minimum wage. One proposed amendment would allow casino gambling and the other would limit the number of terms that a legislator could serve.

State officials are still verifying the signatures submitted by supporters of the casino amendment.

In addition to the three proposals submitted by citizens’ groups, there will be two proposed amendments referred by the legislature. One would require voters to present a photo ID in order to cast a ballot, the other would limit punitive damages and attorneys’ fees in civil lawsuits.

August 23, 2018

LITTLE ROCK –Usually, the busiest times of the year at the state Capitol are during regular or special sessions.

During the interim between sessions there are regular meetings, and each year there is a mock sessions held by Arkansas Boys State and Girls State and the Silver Haired Legislature.

This year, a unique gathering of legislators is scheduled for the last week of August and the first week of September. The standing committees are scheduled to meet, so every lawmaker has business at the Capitol.

We will be enforcing the provisions of Act 781, a law passed last year that requires all state agencies to justify the continuation of rules and regulations. Some rules have been in effect for decades, and a premise of Act 781 is that it is in the state’s best interest to evaluate the need for rules periodically.

If the governor or the legislature do not renew a rule, it will expire within a certain period of time unless the affected state agency justifies its renewal.

The Senate and House Judiciary Committees will evaluate long-standing regulations governing the training of police officers and public defenders. They also will evaluate rules governing detention facilities and parole officers.

The Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committees will review a long list of rules affecting the licensure of health professionals, workers’ compensation and waste management.

The Education Committees will go over rules that affect schools and colleges, as well as libraries and job training centers.

The Committees on City, County and Local Affairs will review regulations of local emergency management departments and telephone services.

Several agencies work in rural areas of Arkansas, including the Livestock and Poultry Commission, the Forestry Commission, the Plant Board, the Natural Resources Commission, the Game and Fish Commission, the Oil and Gas Commission and the Waterways Commission. They all have rules up for review by the Senate and House Committees on Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development.

The Insurance and Commerce Committees will evaluate the need for continued rules governing banks, insurance companies, securities dealers, utilities, funeral homes and burial associations.

Numerous regulatory commissions will have their rules evaluated by legislators on the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees. They include commissions that oversee real estate licensing, fair housing, contractors, home inspectors, accountants and collection agencies.

Lawmakers on the State Agencies Committees also will review regulations governing elections, ethics, fire departments, zoning and appraisals.

Rules governing the assessments of real and personal property will be evaluated by legislators on the Revenue and Taxation Committees.

Highway Matching Funds

The Legislative Council, which meets in the interim between sessions, approved the use of $21.9 million in surplus funds to match federal highway funds.

The decision means that the Arkansas Transportation Department will qualify for about $200 million in federal funding for highway and bridge maintenance.

August 10, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – Every day in Arkansas more than 6,500 calls are made to 911.

Legislators heard a request for upgrades to the 911 system at a recent meeting, from a coalition of state, city and county officials who work in emergency management.  The name of the new system is New Generation 911, or simply NG 911.

The rapid growth in cell phone use is an example of how 911 systems are constantly adapting to new technologies.

More than 90 percent of the emergency calls made today are from cell phones. It seems as if every day, new phones expand our capacity to transmit images, videos, charts and graphs. Telephones became cell phones, which became mobile devices.

The innovations are driven by consumer demand and by marketing on the part of telephone companies. They’re possible because of advances in digital technology.

Yet most 911 calls made in Arkansas must travel along an analog circuit at least once before they reach an emergency dispatcher and the equipment that can locate the geographic source of the calls.

In states like Arkansas, which are trying to upgrade their 911 call systems, emergency responders point to an incident that occurred in North Carolina in 2016. Outdated technology was a factor when it took 11 minutes for responders to arrive, even though they were less than a mile away when the man called 911.

When the infrastructure of our 911 systems was created, landlines were the norm. Emergency dispatchers could pinpoint the source of a call from a landline, but not calls made with cell phones.

After the nationwide boom in cell phone use in the 1990s, federal regulations and upgrades by telephone companies allowed 911 dispatchers to trace the location of calls from cell phones.

But new technologies are becoming popular, such as messaging over social media and the Internet. The ability of current 911 systems in Arkansas has almost come to the point where it can no longer adapt to the flood of new technologies.

The response times of emergency dispatchers varies across Arkansas. The 6,500 emergency calls made in the state each day are routed to 127 call centers, officially known as Public Safety Answering Points. For example, in Craighead County in 2015, the county’s only PSAP handled more than 70,000 emergency calls. That same year, one of the six PSAPs in Lonoke County handled fewer than 3,000 calls.

Next Generation 911 will speed the routing of calls between the various local call centers.

Supporters of a new Next Generation 911 would like the legislature to authorize a single state agency to coordinate new technologies into a statewide network, so that the numerous separate local systems can connect more effectively.

They also would like an additional funding source. Phone users pay a charge on their monthly bills to support 911 services, but they generate only about half of the revenue needed to pay for the operating costs of the various systems in Arkansas. City and county governments pay for the remainder from local tax funds.

According to its supporters, other states are designating a state agency to implement Next Generation 911. They have saved money and increased efficiency by making a single state agency responsible, rather than waiting for numerous local systems to pay for adaptations to their systems.

August 3, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – Educators and traffic safety officials have expanded their annual campaign to alert motorists that students are returning to school, so everyone should be more careful driving because children are again getting on and off school buses every day.

This is the sixth year of the campaign, called “Flashing Red. Kids Ahead.” In the past it has lasted three weeks, and this year school officials, police departments and civic leaders will promote school bus safety for the entire month of August.

It’s little wonder that commuters notice the absence of students in summer and their reappearance in August. In Arkansas 350,000 students ride 7,000 buses every school day.

Transportation officials at the state Education Department promote school bus safety all through the year.

As part of their continuing efforts to enhance school bus safety, they conducted a survey of 3,200 bus drivers in April. On a single day, they reported 850 instances of a motor vehicle illegally passing a bus that was stopped to pick up or drop off children.

In 2005 the legislature strengthened the penalties for passing a stopped school bus that has its red lights flashing to indicate children are getting on or off. The enhanced penalties are in Act 2128 of 2005, which is titled Isaac’s Law in memory of a nine-year-old from Benton who was killed by a passing motorist after he had got off a school bus.

Since 2011, after the legislature approved Act 37, it has been illegal to use a cell phone while driving through a school zone. Act 37 also prohibits the use of a cell phone while driving through a construction zone while workers are present.

In 2009 Arkansas joined a long list of states that prohibit text messaging while behind the wheel of a motor vehicle. Previous laws had prohibited teenaged drivers from texting, but Act 181 of 2009 prohibits all drivers from texting.

That year the State Police worked 787 traffic accidents in which drivers were distracted by cell phones. Federal transportation officials say driver distraction is a factor in 16 percent of fatal crashes.

The State Police joined a nationwide safety campaign in April meant to prevent driving while distracted. It was called “”U Drive – U Text – U Pay.”

In 2016, distracted drivers caused traffic accidents that killed 3,450 people in the United States.

Reading and sending text messages are not the only distractions that endanger motorists. Talking on a phone or using it to search the Internet is a distraction. So is eating, drinking or smoking. Talking to other people in your vehicle can create distractions. Adjusting the navigation system, turning on music or changing radio stations are also common distractions.

In September, police and traffic safety officials will conduct a child safety campaign, aimed at teaching adults to make sure that children in the car are always properly buckled up in an appropriate booster seat. That will be followed by Teen Driver Safety Week in October.

Car crashes are the leading cause of death for American teens aged 15 to 18. The discouraging news is that in 2016, when the most recent statistics were compiled, the number of teen deaths from car crashes went up by six percent over 2015.

July 27, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – All 75 counties in the state and 375 Arkansas cities and towns have signed on to a lawsuit against drug manufacturers and distributors of opioids.

The historic partnership between cities and counties is an indicator of the severity of the opioid epidemic in Arkansas.

City officials heard an update on the opioid crisis during the 84th Convention of the Arkansas Municipal League, held recently at Little Rock.

The state Drug Director told convention delegates that the volume of opioids being distributed in Arkansas makes enforcement and treatment extremely difficult.

He said that there are108 prescriptions for every 100 people in the state. A couple of years ago the ratio was 114 prescriptions per 100 people, and the proportion has been more than 100 prescriptions per 100 people since 2007.

Another way of measuring the availability of the highly addictive drug in Arkansas is that more than 235 million pills were prescribed in a single year, in a state with a population of about three million people.

Opioids are painkillers such as hydrocodone, oxycodone, codeine, fentanyl and other prescription drugs.

Also during the convention, Municipal League delegates adopted more than 30 resolutions. One supports state legislation for the assessment and collection of local sales taxes on Internet sales.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court ruling, in a case titled South Dakota v. Wayfair, clears several obstacles that prevented local jurisdictions from collecting the sales tax on purchases made online.

The ruling was a victory for “bricks and mortar” retail stores that have been losing market share over the past decade, as Internet sales grow in popularity. Local business groups argued that they are at a competitive disadvantage because they collect sales taxes, which means their products will cost more than the same product sold online.

Last year Amazon, the giant online retailer, announced that it would voluntarily collect sales taxes.

The delegates adopted a resolution in support of legislation that would classify Internet providers as utilities.

Another resolution by Municipal League delegates supports legislation that would allow cities and towns to use electronic devices to enforce traffic laws.

Also, the Municipal League delegates endorsed a package of resolutions urging changes to the Arkansas Freedom of Information Act. One change they endorse is to address the problems that arise when a city official receives a request for records that are so voluminous that responding to the request disrupts basic city services and operations.

Another change endorsed by the Municipal League would amend the state Child Maltreatment Act so to protect the records of juveniles. Also, the Municipal League will work to strengthen protections of the identities of confidential informers.

The Municipal League was formed in 1934, with the support of mayors and local chambers of commerce, to represent the interests of cities and towns before higher levels of government.

The Municipal League has successfully pushed for passage of laws to provide local governments with tort immunity from lawsuits, to allow cities to pass local option sales taxes for paying off bonds, and to establish procedures for annexing suburban lands.

July 20, 2018

Arkansas will hold its annual sales tax holiday on Saturday, August 4, and Sunday, August 5.

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, sunglasses, 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.

Veterans Nursing Home

The Arkansas State Veterans Home at North Little Rock, which opened last year, has 96 beds and about 70 are occupied.

At a recent meeting of the Arkansas Veterans Commission, officials discussed the need to fill the remaining beds so that the nursing home’s budget is not under strain.

The facility is a residential setting that consists of eight individual homes that each house 12 veterans. Each veteran has a private room and bathroom.

The architectural design at North Little Rock is rare for a long term care facility. Only one percent of nursing homes in the country are similarly designed. It is meant to differ from conventional designs that are more institutional, so that residents are encouraged to socialize.

July 13, 2018

LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas lottery set a record for ticket sales in the fiscal year that ended on June 30, and will generate almost $92 million for college scholarships.

When the Higher Education Department awards Academic Challenge Scholarships in the fall, the number of scholarships provided by lottery ticket sales will exceed 300,000. Since Arkansas voters approved a constitutional amendment to establish a state lottery, $781 million has been generated for the scholarship program.

The lottery first began selling tickets in September of 2009. At the end of June, there were 1,926 retailers in Arkansas selling lottery tickets.

The funding for scholarships was generated by almost $500 million in ticket sales. The actual amount of $499,704,976 was a record for the Arkansas lottery.

Instant ticket sales, such as scratch-offs, were a record total of $407.6 million for the fiscal year. That is a record for instant tickets.

Sales of tickets for draw games, such as Powerball and Mega Millions, were $92.1 million. That is the second highest. The record was set in 2016, when sales spiked because of widespread interest in a Powerball prize of more than $1 billion.

The lottery paid $342 million in prizes, also a record amount for Arkansas. It was $27 million more than the amount paid to winners in 2012, the year with the second-highest payout in prizes.

Since it began, the lottery has sold about $3.9 billion in tickets and paid out more than $2.6 billion in prizes. Retailers that sell lottery tickets have made $224 million in commissions.

Last year prizes made up 67.9 percent of the lottery’s distribution of revenue. Scholarships were 19 percent, commissions to retailers was 5.6 percent, gaming costs was 4.2 percent and sales and administration was 3.2 percent.

The lottery began a new branding campaign in March, entitled “This Is Winning,” to highlight the various types of games and prizes. It includes 30-second television spots, outdoor ads such as billboards and posters that are placed in retail stores. Also, the promotional campaign has digital advertisements for the lottery on online, such as on social media. The lottery website is more accessible to mobile phones.

The campaign features interviews with lottery winners and scholarship recipients, focusing on winning has changed their lives.

Medical Marijuana

The Medical Marijuana Commission announced the five businesses that will get initial licenses to cultivate marijuana. The announcement came very soon after the state Supreme Court lifted an injunction, issued by a lower court, which had held up the process of awarding licenses.

Voters approved a constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana and creating the commission to regulate cultivation and retail sales. Five companies were selected from the 98 applicants. One of the unsuccessful applicants filed a legal challenge that brought the process to a halt when a circuit judge ruled that there were flaws in the selection process.

The commission also must award licenses to 32 dispensaries, and has received 230 applications. So far, the Health Department has issued more than 5,500 cards to patients certifying that they have one of the 18 qualifying conditions that will allow them to purchase medical marijuana.

Observers expect further legal challenges.