Friday, November 16, 2018

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
LITTLE ROCK – 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.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
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.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
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.”

Thursday, October 25, 2018

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
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.

Friday, October 19, 2018

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
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.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
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.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
            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.

Thursday, September 27, 2018

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
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.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
            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.

Thursday, September 13, 2018

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
            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.