Weekly column written for members of the Arkansas Senate:
The regular session of 2019 will be remembered for the number of far-reaching and significant issues that legislators resolved.
At the top of the list is a package of tax bills developed by legislators on the Tax Reform and Relief Legislative Task Force. They have been working on a list of tax relief and fairness bills since the 2017 regular session. Of all the bills in the task force’s list of recommendations, the one with the highest profile is a proposed reduction in state income taxes. It also would simplify the income tax tables.
Legislators and tax officials are calling the proposal the “two – four – five point nine” plan. That’s because it would phase in rates for all taxpayers of 2 percent, 4 percent and 5.9 percent.
The governor is proposing an income tax reduction that closely aligns with the recommendations of the legislative task force. His proposal would save Arkansas taxpayers more than $111 million a year.
Increases in the minimum teacher salary will garner public attention. The legislature’s Committees on Education have voted on a school funding bill that calls for an increase in minimum salaries of $1,000 in each of the next two years.
That is similar to the governor’s proposal to set aside $60 million for gradual increases in teacher salaries over the next four years, to bring the minimum from its current $31,800 to $36,000 a year.
The governor has proposed reducing the number of state agencies from 42 to 15. By 2021 the savings from efficiency would be $15 million a year, and likely would grow over time.
Bills to implement the reorganization will be referred to the Senate State Agencies Committee.
State Agencies already is one of the busiest committees because it considers proposed constitutional amendments to refer to the ballot. In each regular session, legislators may refer up to three proposed amendments for voters to decide in the statewide election. Amendments proposed this session will be on the ballot in November 2020.
There likely will be legislation to strengthen ethics laws and improve transparency. For example, two separate Senate bills have been filed, SB 52 and SB 53, which would prohibit elected officials from collecting retirement benefits if they are convicted of a felony arising from their actions as an elected official.
The Arkansas Department of Human Services administers the Medicaid program, a health care plan for people with disabilities, senior citizens in long term care facilities and low-income families. In every session there is vigorous debate as legislators make changes to eligibility criteria.
Any changes in Medicaid have ramifications throughout state government, because Medicaid represents such a large portion of the state’s total expenditures. Increases in Medicaid spending make it difficult to increase funding for schools, higher education and prisons.
Also this session, legislators will work on a highway funding program, which may be referred to voters in a statewide election. It is a higher priority for legislators in certain areas of the state where highway improvements have not kept up with population growth.
Legislators will spend much of their time writing budgets for state agencies for Fiscal Years 2020 and 2021. The state general revenue fund, which is the major source of legislators’ discretionary spending, will be about $5.75 billion next fiscal year.
South Arkansas state senators:
District 12 (Columbia and Dallas counties, parts of Ouachita, Nevada, Clark and Grant counties) – Bruce Maloch, Democrat. 650 Columbia Road 258, Magnolia, 71753. 870-235-7041. firstname.lastname@example.org
District 11 (Lafayette, Miller and Little River counties, parts of Hempstead and Sevier counties) – Jimmy Hickey Jr., Republican. 3216 E. 35th St., Texarkana, 71854. 903-824-8861. email@example.com
District 27 (Union and Calhoun counties, parts of Ouachita, Cleveland, Clark and Jefferson counties) – Trent Garner, Republican. P.O. Box 11135, El Dorado, 71730. 870-818-9219. firstname.lastname@example.org