Thursday, January 6, 2011

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – When the Arkansas legislature convenes in regular session it will have new leadership and a host of new faces. They will face old and familiar challenges.

How do we adequately fund public education? How do we control dramatic growth in the number of inmates in state prisons? How do we pay for Medicaid and human services for the state's most vulnerable citizens? How do we maintain and improve highways? How can we lower taxes fairly to generate new business investments and create jobs?

Senator Paul Bookout of Jonesboro will be the new President Pro Tem of the Senate for 88th General Assembly, which convened on the second Monday of the year as required by the Arkansas Constitution. The Speaker of the House will be Representative Robert Moore of Arkansas City.

The 35-member Senate will have 13 new members and the 100-member House will have 46 new members.

The governor has proposed a reduction in the state sales tax on groceries by half a cent. It is now at 2 percent and would drop to 1.5 percent if the legislature agrees to the governor's proposal.

Legislators have floated other tax reduction ideas, including a repeal of the capital gains tax, income tax relief for single parents in low-income brackets and reducing the sales tax on used car purchases. Also, some legislators want to reduce the taxes that manufacturers pay on energy and utility costs.

A major concern facing legislators will be funding of the Medicaid program, which has been relying on a trust fund to make ends meet. Medicaid officials predict that the fund will be depleted in two years.

Medicaid pays for health care services for low-income families and people with disabilities. Also, it pays for about 75 percent of the costs of nursing home care for the state's elderly. About 750,000 Arkansans are eligible for some form of Medicaid. There are 27,000 providers, such as physicians, rural health clinics, hospitals and home health agencies. Medicaid is run by the Human Services Department, which is budgeted for a funding increase of 0.6 percent under the governor's proposed budget.

The governor proposed increasing school funding by 2.9 percent. According to education and budget officials, a 2.9 percent increase would be enough to maintain school funding at constitutionally adequate levels.

The state Correction Department, which runs state prisons, is slated to receive a budget increase of 2.2 percent under the governor's plan. The Department of Community Correction, which operates work release programs and drug courts and supervises convicted offenders on probation or parole, would get a 6.1 percent increase in funding.

The legislature will consider proposals to more efficiently use parole and probation in order to free up prison beds for the most dangerous offenders. A large part of the task entails identifying which inmates to make eligible for parole, based on their record of committing violent crimes.

The legislature will consider proposals by the Blue Ribbon Highway Finance Committee to find revenue for highway maintenance. Also, legislators will look at ways to improve the graduation rate of public colleges and universities in Arkansas.

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