Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas history was made in 2010 when the legislature convened in fiscal session for the first time.

From statehood until this year the Arkansas constitution called for the legislature to meet biennially, in other words, every two years, in odd-numbered years. However, voters approved an amendment to the constitution that authorizes annual sessions, with the session in even-numbered years to be devoted to fiscal matters.

The fiscal session began in February. Although the constitution allows the legislature to consider non-fiscal matters, lawmakers were intent on restricting the agenda to appropriations. The only non-fiscal legislation brought up were the Revenue Stabilization Act, which requires state agencies to operate under balanced budgets, and a bill to set the amounts of Lottery Scholarships.

Another milestone in Arkansas history was made this year when lottery scholarships were distributed for the first time to Arkansas college students. As with annual sessions, the lottery scholarships resulted from voter approval of a constitutional amendment. When the school year began, more than 29,000 students had qualified for about $106 million in lottery scholarships.

Arkansas voters approved constitutional amendments in November that will affect the state economy. One raises limits on interest rates that retailers based in Arkansas may charge their customers. It also raises the maximum allowable interest rates on local government bond issues, and creates a new method for the state to issue and pay off bonds for energy efficiency projects.

Banks are not affected by the provisions in the proposed amendment because their interest rate ceilings are determined by federal law. Car dealers, furniture and appliance stores and retailers that extend credit to customers are the major supporters of the measure.

Another amendment allows the state to issue general obligation bonds to recruit large industries. The bonds can finance land acquisition, rail spurs, water and waste service, job training, environmental mitigation and site preparation.

Before approval of the amendment the state could only issue bonds to recruit industries that hire more than 500 workers and that invest at least $500 million. Those thresholds are now removed.

Other major developments in 2010 include the establishment of a statewide trauma system. In September three hospitals were designated as Level I trauma centers. A total of 73 will be designated in four different levels.

The two highest levels provide comprehensive clinical care. Level III centers offer treatment of mild and moderate injuries. Level IV centers provide stabilization and transfer. Trauma is the leading cause of death for Arkansans aged one to 44. Creation of the new statewide system is expected to save hundreds of lives every year.

The composition of the Arkansas Senate changed dramatically in 2010 because of the term limits amendment to the state Constitution and because of the results of the November general election.

There will be 13 freshmen in the 35-member Senate when the legislature convenes on January 10. Republicans made historic gains in the 2010 election and will hold 15 positions in the Senate. There had been eight Republicans and 27 Democrats.

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