Friday, March 25, 2011

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – As the legislature approaches the final hectic days of this year's regular session, the major issues still unresolved include the approval of state agency budgets, drawing new boundaries for the four Congressional districts in Arkansas and final passage of a highway improvement program.

There are two major components in the highway proposal, and both would have to be approved by voters in a statewide election. One component is a proposed constitutional amendment to raise the state sales tax by half a cent, with a guarantee that the increase would expire after 10 years. The other is an increase in the diesel fuel tax by five cents a gallon.

Revenue from both increases would pay off bonds, which the state would issue so that work on highway improvements could begin immediately.

Revenue from the half-cent sales tax, if voters approve the constitutional amendment, would pay for $1.8 billion bond issue for highway projects.

Revenue from the diesel tax increase would generate about $20 million a year for the state and $4 million each for cities and counties. The traditional division of highway funding is for the state to get 70 percent, cities 15 percent and counties 15 percent.

The Highway Commission would use the additional diesel tax revenue to issue and pay off $1.1 billion in bonds for improvements to interstates and routes in the national highway system, which are the roads most heavily used by trucks. The five-cent increase would expire when the bonds are paid off.

The half-cent sales tax increase for highways is one of two proposed constitutional amendments that the legislature will refer to voters. The other would authorize cities and counties to create development districts. They could issue bonds to pay for improvements such as ramps, roads, water lines and sewer lines to make them more attractive to large retail stores and other businesses. Growth in state sales tax revenue within the district would pay off the bonds.

The legislature must approve the committee recommendations, and if it does the two proposed amendments will be on the November, 2012, general election ballot.

Every 10 years, after the U.S. Census, the boundaries of Congressional districts are redrawn so that they are nearly equal in population. The legislature is drawing a new map so that each of the four districts in Arkansas has about 711,000 residents.

Some of the very last bills to work their way through committee were appropriations for the major state agencies, prisons, institutions of higher education and public schools from kindergarten through grade 12.

The governor's sentencing reform plan won final passage from each chamber and is now Act 570 of 2011. It increases the use of parole and probation in order to free up prison space for dangerous offenders.

Currently, the Department of Community Correction has 362 probation and parole officers. Act 570 will add 49 parole officers and reduce their average caseload from 110 to 85.

The act will create new drug courts, perhaps as many as six. There are now 41 adult drug courts, 10 juvenile drug courts and two DWI drug courts in Arkansas.

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