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

 

 

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.