Wednesday, April 22, 2015

2015 Session Summary

Income Tax Cuts
Act 22 by Senate President Jonathan Dismang and House Speaker Jeremy Gillam is the
Governor’s middle class income tax reduction.
Arkansas with taxable incomes between $21,000 and $75,000 will see their income tax rate drop, starting next year.  The reduction will be from 6 percent to 5 percent on income between $21,000 and $35,099 and from 7 to 6 percent on income $35,100 and $75,000.
Act 22 delays a 0.1 percentage point income tax rate cut for most Arkansans until next year. Those cuts were originally in Act 1459 of 2013 by Rep. Collins. Only people with taxable incomes of less than $21,000 will get that tax cut this year, as scheduled.
The income tax reductions will save Arkansas middle class families about $100 million a year. The changes to capital gains taxes will mean that those affected will not get an anticipated $21 million in tax savings.
Capital Gains
Act 1173 by Rep. Shepherd and many others reduces the state income tax on capital gains. It raises from 40 percent to 45 the exemption on capital gains, effective February 1. 
On July 1, 2016, the exemption goes up to 50 percent. Also, income from capital gains in excess of $10 million would be exempt from state income taxes. Act 1173 will save taxpayers $6 million in Fiscal Year 2016 and $11.8 million in Fiscal Year 2017.

Private Option
The governor has said that the label “private option” is politically toxic in the Arkansas political environment. Act 46 by Sen. Hendren creates a task force to recommend changes to Medicaid.
            One goal is to promote more personal responsibility on the part of people who receive Medicaid services. For example, they may be required to look for work and take job training in order to maintain their eligibility.
The task force must work with urgency because Act 46 has a provision specifically terminating the eligibility of the Medicaid expansion population on December 31, 2016. Those are the 200,000 Arkansas residents who have health coverage under the private option.
Property Rights
Act 1002 by Sen. Hendren sets up a legal process for landowners to seek compensation when a government regulation causes the fair market value of their property to fall by 20 percent or more.
If the landowner prevails in circuit court, a jury determines the amount of fair market value that has been lost and the government entity can either compensate the landowner or repeal the regulation that caused the damage to property values.
Act 887 by Sen. Bledsoe promotes the practice of telemedicine so that under-served and isolated regions of Arkansas will gain more access to health care. It clarifies health insurance regulations to make sure that a telemedicine procedure is reimbursed at an equitable rate as procedures done in person. All telemedicine procedures would still have to comply with Medical Board regulations governing standards of practice.

Prison Reform
            The governor breaks down his plan into three parts:
1)      adding prison space,
2)      improving the parole and re-entry system
3)      alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders
The Board of Correction has approved plans to move 228 inmates to Bowie County, Texas and pay $36 a day, plus $2.42 per day for health insurance. That’s cheaper than the $60 per day per inmate it costs to house them in Arkansas prison units.
It would pay for new regional jails.
It would add 52 parole officers and support staff.
It would expand drug courts.
It would create a “pay for success” program. Non-profits who operate halfway houses or rehab programs would get financial bonuses if the inmates under their care had a lower recidivism rate.
It would authorize warrantless searches of the property of parolees by police officers. Currently, parole officers have that power, but not regular police.
Death Penalty
Act 99 by Rep. Petty allows family members of a murder victim to witness the execution.
SB 298 by Sen. Burnett would have abolished the death penalty. It was advanced by the Senate Judiciary Committee but stalled in the full Senate. 
Act 1096 by Rep. House expands the number of drugs that could be used to execute prisoners on death row. It passed the House and stalled in Senate State Agencies.
Currently there are nationwide shortages of the drugs authorized for lethal injection.

Lottery Scholarships
Act 1105 by Sen. Hickey changes eligibility requirements for lottery scholarships. It would also change how scholarships are paid out, to strongly encourage students to stay in college for their sophomore year.
            Under current law, scholarship recipients get $2,000 dollars for their freshman year and $3,000 dollars in their sophomore year if they remain eligible. That totals $5,000 dollars.
            The Senate bill would instead award scholarship recipients $1,000 dollars in their freshman year and $4,000 their sophomore year. The total amount of the scholarship would still be $5,000 for the first two years, but in order to receive that amount the students would have to stay in school and keep their grades up.
            The scholarship amounts awarded for junior and senior years would remain the same. Recipients get $4,000 dollars their junior year and $5,000 dollars their senior year.
            Students at two year colleges who qualify for the scholarships would get $1,000 dollars their first year and $3,000 dollars their second year, rather than $2,000 dollars each year.
            Another significant change in the bill is that a high school graduate would no longer qualify for a scholarship by earning a 2.5 grade point average. They would have to score a minimum of 19 on the ACT, a common standardized test for college admission.
            These changes are designed to improve cash flow within the lottery scholarship program and strengthen its long-term financial stability.
Act 218 by Senator Hickey abolished the Lottery Commission and transferred its authority to the Department of Finance and Administration.

Snow Days
Act 143 allows  superintendents to open at 10 a.m. or close at 3 p.m., up to five times a school year, without having to make up the day.
Act 286 by Rep. Charlotte Douglas also helps schools cope with snow days. It allows them to make up snow days in increments of 60 minutes at a time. That means a district can add an hour to two at the end of the regular school day, between now and June.
Workforce Training
Act 892 by Senator English creates an Office of Skills Development in the Career Education Department, as well as a new Skills Development Fund. 
It also replaces the current seven-member State Board of Career Education with a 13-member Career Education and Workforce Development Board that would have representatives from the major industries in Arkansas. It would determine which job skills are in most demand by Arkansas businesses, and which state programs are best equipped to train workers to fill for the jobs most in demand by Arkansas companies.
Act 994 by Sen. English allows school districts to use certain categorical funds for students who take concurrent classes at local community or technical colleges, and to have them qualify as an alternative learning environment.
Act 1131 by Sen. English creates the Workforce Initiative Fund in the Department of Higher Education to accept bids from regional job and workforce development initiatives for grants. Community colleges, universities, educational cooperatives and local workforce investment boards can apply for grants of up to $100,000 to improve workforce training.
Act 1200 by Sen. David Johnson authorizes adult education charter schools.
Second Amendment
Act 393 by Sen. Hutchinson allows school district staff with a concealed carry permit to bring firearms to campus. This benefits especially smaller schools that don’t have resources in their budgets to hire a full-time security guard.
            Act 828 by Rep. Hammer is a “deadly force” bill that amends current law, which says a person may not use deadly force in self defense if they can retreat. HB 1203 adds language, saying a person is not required to retreat, and therefore may use deadly force, if he cannot retreat “with complete safety.”
            Act 1073 by Rep. Tosh benefits people who have been sued in civil court for use of deadly force in self defense. 
It grants them immunity from civil suits if their use of deadly force was in accordance with criminal statutes that allow the use of deadly force in self defense or in defense of other people. Act 1073 awards them attorneys’ fees if they prevail.

Criminal Law
Act 543 by Sen. Ingram 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.
Act 973 by Sen. Hutchinson authorizes 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.
Act 1114 By Sen. Rapert provides 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.

Act 377 by Rep. Cozart 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. The districts must not be 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.
            Act 1087 by Rep. Cozart increases teacher salaries according to recommendations by the Adequacy Study. The salary for a starting teacher with no experience will go up from $29,244 to $30,122 next school year and $31,000 in the 2016-17 school year.
            The salaries will amount to an additional $18 million in state spending in Fiscal Year 2016 and $16.6 million in Fiscal 2017.
Act 187 by Rep. Gossage requires expanded computer technology offerings in all high schools, including charters. The measure was a key part of the governor’s legislative agenda, and was a component in his campaign platform last year.
            The act also creates a 15-member task force of educators, science teachers and people with expertise in computers.  Its responsibility will be to ensure that computer courses are up to date and of the highest caliber.
            The governor also signed Act 160 by Rep. Kim Hendren to require elementary schools to teach cursive, also referred to as longhand, by the third grade. It will be a component of the English language arts curriculum.

Unemployment Benefits
Act 412 by Sen. Hendren reduces 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. They had been based on the previous quarter of earnings, and Act 412 bases benefits on the past year’s earnings.
            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.

Pro Life
Act 996 by Sen. Stubblefield prohibits the distribution of state funds to organizations that perform abortions or make referrals for abortions. This would prevent any state funds from going to a Planned Parenthood program.
Act 1014 by Sen. Irvin and Rep. Mayberry prohibits a physician from administering an abortion drug, such as RU-486, via telemedicine.
Act 1086 by Rep. Lundstrum would double the time a woman has to wait for an abortion, from 24 to 48 hours between the consultation and the procedure.
Drug testing for welfare recipients
Act 1205 by Sen. Blake Johnson sets up a pilot project that will test an estimated 12,000 welfare recipients for illegal drug use. In the 2017, the state will have at least a year’s worth of date on the costs of testing everyone who applies for welfare.
Drivers’ Licenses
Act 343 by Sen. English makes drivers’ licenses valid for eight years, instead of four. They will cost $24 instead of $12.
Funeral Home Regulations
Act 1095 by Rep. Talley tightens regulations governing funeral homes, granting the state regulatory board more authority to step in when complaints.  It specifies the standards for obtaining a license and for keeping the funeral home in a clean and healthy condition. 
Individual and Religious Rights
Act 137 by Sen. Hester prohibits local governments from enacting ordinances that creates a protect class or prohibits discrimination on a basis not established in state law. Eureka Springs hurriedly enacted an ordinance protecting gays from discrimination before Act 137 took effect.
It is known as the “Intrastate Commerce Improvement Act” because it is meant to reassure businesses that they will not have to comply with a hodge-podge of varying local ordinances if they locate in various communities in Arkansas.
Act 975 by Rep. Ballinger and Sen. Hutchinson, also known at the Religious Freedom Restoration act, prohibits a government action from being a substantial burden upon a person’s right to exercise his religion.
The only allowable instance is if there is a compelling government interest; for example, it is more compelling for government to enforce laws against illegal drugs than to preserve an individuals’ purported right to worship with narcotic and psychedelic drugs in a religious ceremony. An even more extreme example would be human sacrifice as a so-called “religious practice.”  Government has a compelling interest in prohibiting the killing of people.
Act 1231 by Sen. Rapert directs the Secretary of State to build a monument with the Ten Commandments on the grounds of the Capitol. It will be funded with private donations.

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