Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – The highlight of state government news for 2011 came when the Arkansas legislature lowered state tax rates by $35 million a year.

The tax cut package includes tax relief for consumers in Act 755, which lowers the sales tax on groceries by half a cent, cutting state revenue by $20 million a year.

Another tax cut for consumers is Act 757 to make the first weekend in August a "back to school" sales tax holiday on clothing items costing less than $100 and accessories less than $50. No state sales tax is collected on school supplies that weekend. State revenue officials predicted it would save consumers more than $2 million.

The legislature extended tax relief to buyers of used cars, by raising the exemption threshold. Previously, you had to pay sales tax on a used car purchase of up to $2,500 and now you don't have to pay unless the car costs more than $4,000. This will save Arkansans an estimated $2.5 million a year.

Act 754, also passed by the legislature in 2011, will lower utility taxes for manufacturers by $5.27 million.

Arkansas lawmakers will keep close track of Act 570, a 167-page law passed in 2011 that changes sentencing laws to make sure there is always space in state prisons for dangerous offenders. Act 570 grants judges more flexibility to order supervised probation. If an offender violates the terms of his supervision the penalties are imposed immediately.

Legislators will continue to hear from local law enforcement agencies, state prison officials and prosecutors so they can gauge the long-term effect that Act 570 has on jail populations.

The major ethics legislation passed in 2011 is in Act 48, which prohibits lawmakers from becoming registered lobbyists until they have been out of office for at least a year. It will affect all legislators who run for re-election in 2012.

Act 48 also restricts the amount in expenses for which legislators can be reimbursed. When they attend out of state meetings, they will be reimbursed for the cheapest form of travel, whether it is by airline or by car. If an airline is more expensive they can still fly, but they will only be reimbursed mileage for the amount the trip would cost if they drove.

Act 861 stabilizes the finances of the state unemployment fund by freezing benefit levels. The act has helped replenish the unemployment trust fund.

In November voters approved the renewal of $575 million in bonds to pay for repairs to about 400 miles of interstate highways in Arkansas. Arkansas has 655 miles of interstate highway. A similar bond issue for interstate highway improvements was approved by Arkansas voters in 1999.

Arkansas public schools began a historic transition. Starting in 2011 they began teaching a more rigorous English and math curricula known as Common Core. They bring national education standards into Arkansas classrooms.

Act 987 of 2011 removes the limit on charter schools in Arkansas, which had been 24. When the number of charter schools gets to within two of the limit, the limit will increase by five. For example, if the state Board of Education approves 22 charter schools the maximum number allowed will go up to 29. There were 17 open enrollment charter schools in Arkansas at the beginning of the school year.

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