Thursday, February 9, 2012

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
        LITTLE ROCK –  The Arkansas Highway Commission opened bids on 17 projects estimated to cost about $60.9 million.
        The projects include building a welcome center at Helena-West Helena on Highway 49 for about $2.9 million.  They also include two projects in Cleburne County - adding 2.4 miles of passing lanes on Highway 25 for $ 4.2 million and replacing a bridge on Highway 225 for $8.1 million.  Interstate 40 near Forrest City will get three new bridges at an estimated cost of about $20.9 million.
        The Commission oversees the state Highway and Transportation Department, which is preparing to make improvements to 400 miles of interstates in Arkansas because voters approved the renewal of a bond issue in a statewide election in November.  At its meeting last week the Highway Commission decided to retain its bond counsel, a Little Rock law firm.  Voters approved renewing $575 million in bonds.
        Issuing bonds is one method of borrowing money that is authorized for a few state departments.          The Highway Department and state universities have the authority to issue bonds for capital projects. 
        Campuses of the state's universities pledge revenue from fees and from sources that generate revenue such as meal plans.  Also, voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2004 authorizing state bonds for economic development projects that would create 500 or more jobs and generate at least $500 million in investments.
        Generally speaking most agencies within Arkansas state government do not deficit spend.  Each year they operate under a balanced budget, and when tax revenue declines because of a slowdown in the economy, those agencies make cuts. 
        In recent weeks the Forestry Commission, the Health Department's home health program and the Administrative Office of the Courts have had to lay off employees or have had to consider furloughs in order to avoid layoffs.  Those budget issues are a priority during the fiscal session because legislators have to determine how to maintain the services provided by those agencies over the next fiscal year.
        The Forestry Commission announced layoffs of 34 employees owing to a decline in revenue from severance taxes on timber.  Then the governor and legislative leaders announced a plan to transfer funds from the Agriculture Department to cover the shortfall.
        The Health Department has laid off 18 licensed practical nurses in its home services program and required 22 managers to take unpaid furloughs, to prevent going over budget by $2.2 million this year.  The home services program is budgeted to spend $76.3 million.  It has 626 workers who help recovering patients and people who are terminally ill.  The workers go the patients' homes, under a physician's orders, to help them with daily needs.  Annually they serve about 26,000 people.
        Health Department officials said the cuts were necessary because reimbursements from Medicare and Medicaid are not keeping up with the costs of providing in-home services.  Those two government programs pay for almost 95 percent of the in-home visits by Health Department nurses and aids who work in the home services program.
        Also during the fiscal session, legislators are looking for stable sources of funding for drug courts and trial courts.

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