Thursday, March 12, 2015

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

            LITTLE ROCK – The legislature passed an act that enables small schools to seek a waiver from the state Education Department when they are in jeopardy of being consolidated because their enrollment has fallen below 350 students.
            Act 377 allows school districts to seek a waiver if they are not on probationary status for being in fiscal or academic distress.
            The threshold of 350 students was put in effect in a special session of 2004 dedicated to education. Act 60 of 2004 requires districts to be consolidated if their enrollment falls below 350 for two consecutive years. It has had a far-reaching effect on Arkansas public education; in 2003 there were 308 school districts in Arkansas and today there are 237.
            Also, the House approved HB 1495, which allows local school boards to vote on whether to place advertising on school buses. Revenue from the advertising could only be used for transportation purposes. HB 1495 was sent to the Senate Education Committee.
            Both chambers approved HB 1489 to reduce payment of unemployment benefits from 25 to 20 weeks. It would also reduce payments by an estimated $20 per week by changing the way benefits are calculated.
            A few years ago the fund into which unemployment taxes are paid was in a $360 million deficit, and the state unemployment fund had to borrow from the federal government. That triggered higher unemployment taxes for businesses. 
Last October, the state fund became solvent again, saving Arkansas businesses an estimated $87 per employee in lower taxes and avoiding a scheduled increase of $32 per employee. A spokesman for the business community estimated that paying off the debt last October will save Arkansas employers $119 million on their unemployment taxes in 2015.
            HB 1432, to allow people with a concealed carry permit to bring a firearm to polling places, was approved by the House and referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.
            The Senate passed SB 569 to prohibit the distribution of state funds to organizations that perform abortions or make referrals for abortions.
Also, the Senate approved SB 543 to provide immunity for people who call 911 to seek medical assistance for someone in danger from a drug overdose.
It will be known as the Joshua Ashley-Pauley Act, after a young man in Conway who died of an overdose of prescription drugs, even though he and his friends were near the local hospital. They were afraid of getting in trouble until it was too late to save his life.
            The Senate passed SB 46 to authorize law enforcement officials to seek extended authority to monitor sex offenders. It requires prison officials to notify prosecuting attorneys when a registered sex offender is about to be released. 
Prosecutors could then seek permission from circuit court for an extended period of supervision over the sex offender, even beyond the expiration of his initial parole date.
Both chambers approved HB 1573, which expands the collection of DNA samples to include anyone arrested on felony charges and not just those arrested for violent crimes.
Across the country there are reports of how DNA sampling has enabled the police to solve murders, assaults, rapes and other violent crimes. It has happened after the police arrested someone for a crime such as burglary or theft and collected DNA samples. The suspects’ DNA matched samples from other crimes and police were able to confirm that they had caught a dangerous, repeat offender.

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