Thursday, October 30, 2014

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
            LITTLE ROCK – The state Correction Department received 16 applications from communities wanting to be the location of a proposed new $100 million prison unit.
            The unit would hire 250 people and the average salary would be $12.50 an hour, and in the future it could expand.
            The state Board of Correction will bring its plans for the new prison unit before the legislature during the 2015 session.  If the legislature approves the plan, as well as a funding mechanism, construction would likely not begin until 2016.
            The Board has its own proposal on how to fund the new prison, which legislators will study in detail. It is to raise fees on license plate renewals from $2.50 to $4.50 and use the revenue to pay off a $95 million bond issue. Annual operating costs are estimated to be about $20 million a year.
            Prison officials say that the new prison would have 200 individual cells for isolation of inmates who commit crimes against other inmates. The director of the Correction Department has reported to legislators about the challenges of housing the current generation of inmates, who are relatively young and difficult to manage.
Many of them are serving extremely long sentences.  That makes discipline difficult because they have no incentive to demonstrate good behavior and it can create a greater security threat for officers.
A spokesman said that when prison officials consider potential sites for the new prison, they will take into account the local labor pool.  Some areas want the jobs created by a prison, but there are not enough workers to fill the available positions.
One factor that decreases the number of potential employees is that applicants must have a criminal record free of felonies or misdemeanor battery convictions.
A new prison is among numerous funding requests that state agencies will bring before legislators during the 2015 regular session. Legislators will write new budgets for public schools, higher education, the State Police and the Human Services Department. There will be many competing demands for all available state tax dollars, and there is no guarantee which spending requests will be funded.
The Joint Senate and House Education Committees voted in favor of increases in starting salaries for first-year teachers, from $29,244 to $31,000. For teachers with a master’s degree the base salary would be $34,640.
One concern of lawmakers is the discrepancy in starting salaries in various parts of the state.  Some districts pay the bare minimum of $29,244 to first-year teachers, while other districts start their teachers at almost $46,000 a year.
The pay increase would cost the state and local school districts about $16.5 million a year. If legislators approve the salary increase for teachers in the 2015 session, an issue to be resolved is how much local districts must pay and how much the state will provide for the raises.
Also, the committee recommended a funding increase of just under 1 percent for schools with a high proportion of students from low-income families.
The committees also recommended that the legislature allocate at least $65 million for improvements to school facilities.
The Education Committee determines how much funding is needed for the state to provide all children in Arkansas with an adequate education.  The details and the total amounts still must be approved by the Joint Budget Committee during the 2015 session.

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