Thursday, February 24, 2011

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – In regular sessions of the legislature the most important and the most difficult issues usually are considered in the second half. The 2011 session is no exception.

Major issues left to be addressed include sentencing reform, highway financing and Congressional redistricting. Also, final approval of the overall budget for state government is always one of the last things completed in a regular session.

A draft of a 160-page bill to change sentencing laws has been floating around the Capitol. Its purpose is to slow down the consistently rapid growth in the Arkansas inmate population. State prison units now house more than 16,000 inmates and at present rates of growth the number will be 20,000 within a few years. The Correction Department budget is $300 million a year, which is double what it was in 1999.

In general, the sentencing reform bill would expand parole and probation so that non-violent offenders serve an alternate sentence, rather than serving time in a prison barracks. That would make more space available for dangerous offenders.

The difficulty is in distinguishing between non-violent and violent offenders. For example, some inmates are now in prison on a relatively minor drug offense such as possession of a joint of marijuana. However, in years past they served time for a violent offense such as assault.

Prosecutors have been carefully reading a draft of the bill to make sure it will not inadvertently allow violent offenders early parole.

Supporters of legislation to improve highways face the challenge of identifying a revenue source. That means either raising taxes or diverting tax revenue from other services, like schools or prisons or colleges. Several legislators have said that any highway program that requires a tax increase probably would not be enacted by the General Assembly, but instead would be referred to voters in a statewide election.

Every 10 years, with results from the U.S. Census, the legislature redraws the boundaries of the state's four Congressional districts. The purpose is to preserve the "one man, one vote" principle. An individual or a demographic group does not have equal influence in a district of a million people as it would in a district with 500,000 people.

Recent Census figures indicate that each of our four Congressional districts should have about 731,000 residents. That means the Second District in central Arkansas must lose about 14,000 people and the Third District in northwest Arkansas must lose about 95,000 people. The First District in east and north Arkansas must gain about 44,000 people and the Fourth District in south Arkansas must gain 66,000 people.

It is possible that for the first time Arkansas will split counties to give all its Congressional districts the same population.

The Joint Budget Committee has been working steadily on spending requests by state agencies. The smaller boards and commissions, whose revenue comes from fees charged for services rendered, are the first agencies to have their budgets approved.

Budgets for the largest agencies won't be finalized until the closing days of the session. They include the Public School Fund, higher education, Medicaid, human services and prisons.

No comments: