Saturday, April 2, 2011

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – The major accomplishments of the 2011 legislative session include a wide-ranging series of tax cuts, stronger ethics laws for lawmakers and a highway program that Arkansas voters will be able to vote on in a statewide election.

The legislature enacted new laws to provide alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders, which include an expansion of parole and probation. The General Assembly also restored the state's depleted unemployment insurance fund, and it passed legislation to stabilize the fund by freezing unemployment benefits.

The "Financial Transparency Act" passed this year will make state agency spending accessible to anyone with a computer and access to the Internet.

Legislators voted to increase public school funding by 2 percent. Rural schools will get relief from a special $500,000 fund the legislature created to enhance state aid to schools with high transportation costs.

Arkansas businesses will compete on a more level playing field with large Internet retailers, thanks to legislation that obligates out-of-state firms to remit sales and use taxes on purchases made online.

In addition, the legislature wrote general revenue budgets for state government that hold the line on spending by the Department of Human Services, most other state agencies and institutions of higher education. The conservative budget approved by lawmakers does not grant a cost of living raise to state employees next year.

Public schools will get an increase to make sure they are adequately funded, as required by the state Constitution.

Also, the Department of Correction and the Department of Community Punishment will get slight increases in order to handle the growing number of prison inmates and to implement expanded parole programs.

Economic development initiatives enacted this session include replenishing the governor's "Quick Action Closing Fund," which is spent on infrastructure and job training to recruit industry to Arkansas.

The General Assembly tightened restrictions on the sale of over the counter cold medications with ingredients used in the manufacture of methamphetamine. The state Board of Health was authorized to restrict or prohibit the sale of new products that artificially mimic the effects of marijuana and other illegal substances.

Paperwork was simplified in the ARKids First health care program for children from low-income families, which means that about 20,000 eligible children will not be dropped from the rolls each year because their parents have trouble filling out forms.

A bill to prohibit the sale of lottery tickets in vending machines was passed by the Senate, but it failed in the House Rules Committee. Supporters of the bill said that in spite of precautions it is too easy for children to buy lottery tickets from machines.

State funding of colleges and universities will now partially depend on graduation rates and course completion rates, under legislation approved this year. It is part of a concerted effort among higher education institutions to help students remain in school

In the final days of the session, lawmakers were working on bills to make school choice less restrictive, to draw new maps for the state's four Congressional districts and to implement health insurance exchanges as required under the new federal health care law.

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