• New Funding Model Considered for Higher Ed

    The State of Arkansas is home to over 40 institutions of higher education, including 10 four-year universities, 22 two-year colleges, 12 private universities and 1 academic health center.

    Currently, the state supported institutions are funded based on enrollment.
    However, the Department of Higher Education has outlined several goals including increasing graduation rates, increasing the number of non-traditional students enrolling, and improving affordability by reducing the amount of time needed to graduate.

    A change in the way we fund our colleges and universities has been presented as a way to help achieve these goals.

    In a vote of 87-10, with 3 members voting present, the House approved HB1209, a bill to adopt a productivity-based funding model for state supported institutions. The model itself is not included in the bill, rather it directs the Higher Education Coordinating Board to implement a model based on the following priorities:

    • Differences in institutional missions;
    • Completion of students’ educational goals;
    • Progression toward students’ completion of programs of study
    • Affordability through on-time completion of programs of study;
    • Limiting the number of excess credits earned by students;
    • Efficient allocation of resources;

    If this bill is signed into law, the department will present its funding formula policy to the coordinating board by April 2017.  After approval by the board, the policy will be presented to the legislature. The legislation also specifies that no institution can receive a cut of more than 2% in any given year.

    Bills addressing higher education are presented first in the House Education Committee. The Education Committee schedules meetings for every Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 10am.  These meetings are streamed live and also archived at arkansashouse.org.

    The committee has advanced several more pieces of legislation to the House to address next week.

  • Legislative Update | January 27, 2017

    The House began this week by passing an income tax reduction for Arkansans making less than $21,000 a year.  In a vote of 90-2, with 5 members voting present, the House passed HB1159 also known the Tax Reform and Relief Act of 2017.

    The legislation passed this week creates a legislative task force to explore future tax reform.  The task force is required to complete a report by September 1, 2018.  The report will include proposals for tax cuts and job growth.

    The House passed two other tax-related measures this week.  HB1157 makes clear that Arkansans have only one homestead property tax credit per year.  And HB1156 requires that Arkansas corporate income tax returns be filed by April 15 beginning this year.

    In the third week of the session, the House also passed legislation which makes clear that an individual can be charged with harassment for communication on an electronic device including communication through social media.

    The House passed HB1032, the Arkansas Unborn Child Protection from Dismemberment Abortion Act.  The vote for this bill was 78-10 with 2 members voting present.  The legislation prohibits the procedure known as dilation and evacuation (D&E).  The legislation makes exceptions if the life and health of the mother is at risk.

    Other bills heading to the Senate include HB1147 and HB11185. HB1147 states the driver’s license of military member will not expire while the individual is living out of state if he or she applies for an extension of the expiration date.

    HB1185 allows for a death certificate to be issued for a stillbirth occurring after 12 weeks gestation.  Currently, one can only be issued after 20 weeks gestation or if the fetus weighs 350 grams or more.  This bill does not require a certificate be issued, but rather upon the request of the parents.

    In the upcoming week, we will be addressing legislation regarding funding for higher education and tax breaks for retired military members.

  • Legislative Update | January 20, 2017

    Currently there are 3,000 Arkansans with intellectual or developmental disabilities waiting for community-based or in home services.  The needs range from adaptive equipment at home to day treatment programs.

    This week the House took the first step in an effort to eliminate this waiting list.
    In a vote of 93-0, we approved HB1033.  This legislation calls for the diversion of $8.5 million from the tobacco settlement fund to fund the needs of the waiting list.  This money is currently not being used on any other program.  The state funds would be then matched by $20 million in federal funds.

    It is expected the funds will assist 500-900 of those on the list.  This bill is now heading to the Senate.

    Meanwhile, heading to the Governor’s desk is a bill that allows the Medical Marijuana Commission more time to implement rules for growers and dispensaries.

    The Medical Marijuana Amendment passed by voters in November, gave the commission 120 days to be appointed and create all rules and regulations regarding growing and dispensing.

    The sponsor of the bill said while rules can be passed quickly, 120 days did not allow enough time for public input and participation in the process.

    HB1026 gives the commission 180 days. And it requires the commission to begin accepting application by July 1, which aligns with the start of the fiscal year.  The date in the amendment approved by voters in November was June 1.

    It has passed both the House and the Senate and is now waiting on the Governor’s signature.

    The House Revenue and Taxation Committee has advanced two tax cut proposals. HB1159 targets tax cuts to those making under $21,000 a year.  HB1161 provides an earned income tax credit for those who already qualify for the federal credit.

  • Legislators Consider Tax Reductions

    As with every legislative session, one of the greatest challenges we face will be to balance a budget that does not burden tax payers while providing needed services.

    This year, we will consider tax exemptions for retired military living in our state and competing proposals for other tax reductions.

    Before we can begin any tax reform, we must have a clear picture of the current economic situation for the state.

    That is why the House Revenue and Taxation Committee this week began with a review of the Revenue Stabilization Act and the current budget forecast.

    Approximately 54% of our General Revenue comes from state income tax.  Another 36% comes from state sales tax.

    The current growth rate for revenue is 1.5%. Six months into the fiscal year, there is now $38.2 million more in revenue than this time last year. The forecast shows we will fund the current year’s budget and will have a $5.4 billion budget to balance for the next fiscal year.

    All bills calling for tax cuts have been directed to the House Revenue and Taxation Committee.  That committee is expected to begin running bills on Thursday of next week.

    In the Governor’s State of the State address, he asked for the legislature’s support not only for his tax proposals, but for increases in funding for foster children in the state and for mental health centers.

    He is also requesting the legislature to redirect portions of the tobacco settlement funds to help reduce the number of Arkansans on the waiting list for disability services.

    Chairs of standing committees and members of Select Committees were announced moments after members were sworn in on Monday.

    The House has posted a list of all committees including chairs and vice-chairs at www.arkansashouse.org.

    The House reconvenes on Tuesday at 1:30 pm.  As a reminder, the House streams all committee meetings held in the Capitol and all House Chamber proceedings live.  You can also find recorded proceedings in the Video Library on the website.

  • Support for Marijuana Legalization Declining in Arkansas

    A new poll by Talk Business shows that support for medical marijuana legalization in Arkansas is declining. An August 2015 Talk Business Poll showed support for medical marijuana prescribed by physicians at 84 percent, but as voters understand more about the issue it has lost a significant amount of support.

    “Talk Business released the poll late yesterday afternoon that showed 58% of voters could potentially support the measure, but that’s a 26% reduction of the support they enjoyed this time last year. I think parents, businesses, and community leaders are really starting to take a look at the negative impact legalizing medical marijuana will have,” said Kevin Russell, Chairman of The Coalition for Safer Arkansas Communities. “These measures will not only have an effect on our workforce, the safety measures concerning children and marijuana use is a huge concern as there are too many unanswered questions.”

    There are currently two competing ballot measures. One would allow the sale of medical marijuana through regulated dispensaries. The other would allow residents living over 20 miles away from a dispensary to grow up to 10 marijuana plants at their home.

    “Previous polling has shown the ‘grow your own’ aspect of this initiative struggles to find support. This is where things get dangerous. Without FDA approval, allowing folks to grow marijuana plants in their home without proper safety precautions is a disaster waiting to happen and will make it incredibly difficult for authorities to regulate,” said Russell.

    The Coalition for Safer Arkansas Communities is dedicated to fighting any initiatives to legalize marijuana as the facts overwhelmingly show that states that legalized marijuana lead non-legalized states in teen marijuana use, meaning less educational achievement, lower IQ, more school dropouts, traffic fatalities, and eventual unemployment.

    “We are making a lot of progress in our efforts to educate the public,” said Russell. “We still have more work to do.”

    For more information on the effects of marijuana, how to volunteer, and where you can donate, visit KeepArkansasSafe.com.

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  • Coalition for Safer Arkansas Communities Fights Marijuana Legalization

    As you know, ballot initiatives to legalize both medical and recreational use of marijuana are collecting signatures that, if passed, will open the pathway to increased substance abuse and make our communities less safe.

    While pot proponents are cynically using cancer and epilepsy patients to promote marijuana for medical use, the truth is only 5-10% of medical marijuana patients have cancer, epilepsy, glaucoma, or HIV. Compassion is not the real motivator behind these bills, but, just like Big Tobacco, a few people stand to make a lot of money. Unfortunately, also like Big Tobacco, the taxpayers will pay far more down the road for the consequences of legalization than they will ever get in tax revenue.

    For employers, the impact on productivity, workplace safety, compliance and litigation is staggering. According to the US Department of Justice: National Drug Intelligence Centre. The Economic Impact of Illicit Drug Use on American Society (2011). Overall, lost-work productivity (including absenteeism and poor job performance) associated with substance abuse accounts for more than two-thirds of the total $193 billion that drugs cost employers and the nation annually. In fact, the Journal of Global Drug Policy and Practice states that employees who test positive for marijuana have 55% more industrial accidents, 85% more injuries, and absenteeism rates that are 75% higher than those who test negative on a pre- employment exam. The National Law Review warns that the growing conflict between drug and employment law in the states where legalization has occurred is “ripe for future litigation.”

    Probably the most dire consequence is the effect on our youth. Last fall, the American College of Pediatricians said “Marijuana is addicting, has adverse effects upon the adolescent brain, is a risk for both cardio-respiratory disease and testicular cancer, and is associated with both psychiatric illness and negative social outcomes. Evidence indicates limited legalization of marijuana has already raised rates of unintended marijuana exposure among young children…” The facts overwhelmingly show that states that legalized marijuana lead non-legalized states in teen marijuana use. Marijuana use as a teen increases the rate of addiction from 9 to 17%, almost 1 in 6 kids getting addicted. Addicted teenagers mean less educational achievement and lower IQ and more school dropouts, traffic fatalities, and eventual unemployment.

    Coalition for Safer Arkansas Communities is dedicated to fighting these initiatives in order to keep our communities safe but WE NEED YOUR HELP to fight the false propaganda being fed to our youth and our state downplaying the harmful effects of marijuana legalization.

    As parents, teachers, medical professionals, law enforcement officials, business owners, and community leaders, it is our job to step up to the plate and protect our community. We have the facts but need your help combating false and misleading information’ from pot proponents.

    Please support this campaign by doing these simple, but important steps:

     

    Combating the misleading information being spread by the big pot industry is expensive. Every contribution we receive goes directly towards getting our message out and defeating these ballot initiatives. Whether it’s $1,000, $500, $250, $100, or even $50 – EVERY contribution we receive gets us one step closer to victory.

    We have a great resource in our website and we are adding new information frequently. Please engage the campaign by following us on Facebook and finding a way to volunteer in your community.

    States that have legalized are suffering from the consequences of their folly and responsible people are bemoaning the fact they did nothing to stop it when they had a chance. We have the chance to take a stand against the marijuana industry and keep Arkansas from becoming a drug house, like Colorado.

    Please join with us and learn from their mistake before it is too late.

    Respectfully yours,

    Kevin Russell, Chairman
    Coalition for Safer Arkansas Communities

    P.S. Please share with your friends and consider a donation of $500, $250, $100, or $50 today to help us get our message out. Thank you, in advance, for your support.  To learn more about the Coalition for Safer Arkansas Communities initiative, visit keeparkansassafe.com

  • Arkansas Unemployment Rate Reaches Record Low

    Unemployment in our state is now at a record low. Since we began tracking employment in 1976, we have never seen the unemployment rate below 4.1%. That is until last month.

    The unemployment rate for April in Arkansas was 3.9% while the national rate was 5%. This means 1,309,268 are in the workforce. That is 5,000 more than the month before.

    The Department of Workforce Services says jobs were added in several fields including transportation, hospitality, and construction.

    When Arkansans are working their families and our state see the benefit. It increases an individual’s purchasing power which then leads to the creation of more jobs.

    The news comes while we are working to improve our state’s infrastructure and our efficiency in this special session. We are expected to adjourn this session on Monday.

    The House approved a bill to provide a match to federal highway funds for the next 5 years which will result in $1 billion to improve our roads. The legislation accomplishes the first year’s match by transferring $40 million from the Governor’s Rainy Day Fund, using $1.5 million from investment returns from the state treasurer, diverting $4 million from the diesel tax currently being directed to general revenue, and devoting the entire ½ cent sales tax which voters approved in 2012 to highways. Currently 3% of that tax goes to central services which funds our constitutional offices.

    For the following years, the state will direct 25% of all surplus funds to highways. We will continue to direct investment earnings from the state treasury to the highway department. The bill also includes provisions to provide us with more information on projects funded by the Highway Commission.

    The House also advanced legislation implementing an expiration date for task forces that either rarely meet or have not met in some time. The efficiency bill also transfers the Arkansas History Commission from Parks and Tourism to the Department of Arkansas Heritage. In addition, this bill streamlines the paperwork process for Children and Family Services workers who oversee foster care cases.

    Other legislation presented this session include eliminating a state trust fund for workman’s compensation claims while lowering the taxes for policies paid by businesses.

    Currently, this fund assumes the cost of worker’s compensation claims after businesses pay the first $204,000. It is predicted this fund could go bankrupt in 6 to 8 years. This bill would require businesses or their insurance policies to assume all of the claims after June 2019 while lowering their premium tax.

    And we approved a measure to put a pause on schools or districts from being declared in academic distress for the 2016-2017 school year. This allows schools time to adjust while a new accountability system is being implemented.

    By the end of the first week, the House voted in favor of 12 bills. You can review all of the bills and watch testimony in committees and on the House floor at www.arkansashouse.org

  • Fourth Fiscal Session Ends With Balanced Budget

    The House has wrapped up the state’s 4th Fiscal Session by passing a balanced budget with increases in funding to some of the most urgent needs.

    We began this session with discussion and debate on funding Arkansas Works. After that appropriation passed, it was clear the budget for the next year would not require any cuts to state agencies or increase taxes for Arkansans.

    The $5.3 billion balanced budget we passed includes a 2.75% spending increase from last year.

    The increases include:

    • $23.7 million for education
    • $88 million for traditional Medicaid and 6 months of funding for Arkansas Works
    • $3.5 million for behavioral health programs
    • $20 million for foster care programs within DHS
    • $2 million for higher education grants
    • $1.5 million for economic development
    • $4 million for the Department of Correction
    • $5.2 million for merit pay adjustment for state employees.

     

    We also approved a fund transfer of $50 million from the state’s surplus to the rainy day fund. And another $13.8 million will be diverted to the rainy day fund during the next fiscal year.

    The rainy day fund is intended to be used for emergencies and any needs the Governor may see that cannot wait until the next session.

    We plan to use $1 million from this fund to restore cuts that were made last year to library funding statewide. Another $1 million will restore funding to senior centers.

    The Governor has also indicated he wants to use a portion of these funds for highways.

    He announced on Friday that he will call the legislature back in for a special session to address highway funding on May 19. There are both short term and long term needs when it comes to our infrastructure. It will be up to us to decide if the long term needs should be addressed in this session or wait until the next Regular Session.

    You can review the budget we recently passed on our website at www.arkansashouse.org. In the meantime, we will continue to update you on our approach to improve Arkansas’s highways.

  • Joint Budget Committee Hears Appropriation Proposals

    This week, the Joint Budget Committee set aside days for legislators to present proposed changes to appropriations before a final budget is drafted. If adopted, these amendments will be before the full House next week.

    Meanwhile, the House continues to pass dozens of appropriations for various agencies as we wind down this fiscal session.

    An appropriation gives the agency the authority to spend the money when it becomes available.
    It is effective for a one year period beginning in July.
    The appropriation specifies which agency receives the money, where the money will come from, and what the money will be used for.

    Other bills before us include supplemental appropriations which usually add money to an authority from an accumulated surplus. And we also vote on re-appropriations which allow an agency to spend a balance left over from the previous year.

    What is important to remember as we continue this budget process is that just because an agency is given a certain amount for an appropriation does not mean that amount is funded. The funding amount is determined by the Revenue Stabilization Act (RSA) which will be before us next week.
    We expect to see increases in education and funding for Children and Family Services to provide for the increasing number of foster care families in our state.

    We also know we will be passing another budget without any tax increases or cuts to essential services.
    Unlike previous years, adjourning from the Fiscal Session does not give us an extended break. We know very soon we will be asked to reconvene and direct our attention to highway funding. Already, many of us are studying various proposals and what needs are in our districts.

    The Governor’s Working Group on Highway Funding Report states that $110 million is needed in the next three years to address the Highway and Transportation Department’s most critical needs.
    We will continue to update you on this issue as it develops.

    You can watch all House proceedings at www.arkansashouse.org

  • 2016 Fiscal Session Inches Closer to Final Budget

    The General Assembly is inching closer to finalizing a balanced budget for the next fiscal year. The pace of this Fiscal Session picked up significantly after the passage of SB121. Speaker Gillam later described the debate about this bill as an extremely professional one with a good civil discourse. With 76 votes, the House sent the appropriation bill to fund medical services for the Department of Human Services to the Governor’s desk.

    The amended version of SB121 included a sunset clause to end funding for Arkansas Works at the end of this year. Just a few hours after our vote the Governor announced he vetoed the line item for the sunset clause.

    The House passed a number of other appropriation bills this week including those for colleges and universities. It is expected to take two to three weeks to review and pass all the needed appropriations before we are presented with the Revenue Stabilization Act.

    Under the Revenue Stabilization Law, priorities are set out for the distribution of the General Revenue collections. As the tax dollars are collected, they are distributed first to the funds and in the proportions set out in the A category, then the B category and then the C, if there is one. Each legislative session starts new and sets the amounts, the categories and the priorities.
    By law members have three days to review the proposed Revenue Stabilization Act before being asked to vote. When it is distributed, we will post a copy on our website for the public to review.
    And on a final note, we were presented with even more good news about the future of Arkansas’s economy this week. Our unemployment rate continues to decline. The March unemployment rate was at 4.0%. That is down from 5.5% during the same month last year.

    Knowing that more Arkansans are working helps to complete this next year’s budget with a positive outlook.

    We will continue to update you. And remember, you can watch all House proceedings at www.arkansashouse.org.