From the state’s first female governor to an overhaul of the state’s education system, the Ninety-Fourth General Assembly brought unprecedented change to Arkansas. After three months of work, lawmakers adjourned on Friday and plan to return on May 1 for the official end of the legislative session.
“It started with a slow trot and ended with a mad rush to the finish,” Rep. Carlton Wing, R-North-Little Rock, told the House of Representatives Friday.
Senate Pro Tempor Speaker Bart Hester, R. Cave Springs, said he appreciates the legislature not having to extend its session in order to meet goals set by its members and US Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
“We hit our targets in a good time, and I think that says a lot about where the state of Arkansas is,” Hester told the Arkansas attorney after the Senate adjournment.
Approval of Sanders’ top priorities seemed like a foregone conclusion thanks to the Republican supermajority. (The 100-member House includes 82 Republicans, the 35-member Senate 29.)
While lawmakers passed legislation to support the governor’s goals to cut income taxes and significantly change the state’s education and parole systems, there was bipartisan opposition, particularly in relation to the creation of a comprehensive school voucher program.
The Governor-backed Education and Parole Act was also unique because it was a “sweeping” bill, which McCullough said made it difficult for Democrats to fully support.
The “culture war” bills spearheaded by many GOP lawmakers took so long that dozens of Arkans came to Little Rock to speak for and against bills to ban drag shows, restrict pronoun use, and prosecute librarians for distributing “harmful” material to minors. , among other things.
To fund all of this legislation, lawmakers approved a general revenue budget of $6.2 billion, an increase of $177.7 million, for the 2024 fiscal year, which begins July 1. The majority of this increase supports K-12, the Department of Corrections and the Joint Budget Committee, Chairman Sen. Jonathan Desmange told the Senate on Thursday.
Most appropriations take effect on the first day of the next fiscal year. Meanwhile, most bills became laws 90 days after the legislature adjourned Sine Die, the official last day of session. Bills that include an emergency clause become law as soon as they are signed by the governor, while others set a specific day for them to become effective.
The Learning Act changes multiple aspects of the state’s education system, including teacher pay, per-student funding, graduation requirements, annual student testing, and an emphasis on literacy for elementary school students.
Opponents criticized the speeding of the complex 145-page bill through the legislature in two weeks, while supporters applauded the expansion of “school choice”.
The legislation creates the Arkansas Children’s Educational Freedom Account Program, a voucher program that will be phased in over three years and provides 90% of each student’s annual public school funding rate for use on allowable education expenses, including private school tuition.
The new law also raises the minimum salary for teachers in the state from $36,000 to $50,000 and requires all teachers to receive at least a $2,000 raise for the 2023-2024 school year. State officials said they will provide the funding to ensure that counties can pay the minimum $50,000.
The Learning Act eliminated a mandatory salary schedule, but requires districts to create a schedule to qualify for state funding to support teacher raises.
McCullough introduced a bill early in the session to increase teacher pay to $50,000 and said she credits Democrats with the figure being incorporated into the Learning Act when it was introduced a few weeks later.
However, much remains uncertain about the details of the broad new law, as the Arkansas Department of Education (ADE) is expected to develop rules and regulations in the coming weeks. Hester said he sees public anxiety about the law as being based on a “fear of the unknown”.
“The concerns people have will be addressed when children in Arkansas can read (and) when teachers are paid fairly,” Hester said.
Members of the public have been invited to submit applications for working groups that will provide input on the policies of the Learning Act. The application period closed on March 31, but selections have not been announced.
There is also a lot of uncertainty surrounding funding sources. ADE estimates that the legislation will cost $297 million in the first year and $343 million in the second year of implementation. By fiscal year 2025, the plan will require $250 million in new government spending, according to the department’s projections. The country already spends more than $2 billion annually on public education.
Lawmakers approved legislation to increase funding for public education by 2.8%. Officials estimate that the so-called “seed financing” will cost $75 million in fiscal year 2024 and $132 million in fiscal year 2025.
Funding per student, which will increase from $7,413 to $7,618 for the 2023-2024 academic year, is determined by a funding formula called the matrix. Lawmakers have long complained about flaws in the complex 20-year-old financing formula, so Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, introduced a bill that would allow lawmakers to develop a new financing model over the next two years.
The Senate rejected the legislation Friday morning.
The 131-page Arkansas Protection Act restructures Arkansas’ criminal sentencing and parole system.
The bill abolishes automatic eligibility for parole for convicted felons and requires those convicted of the most serious state crimes, such as rape and murder, to serve 100% of their prison sentences behind bars.
Supporters of the bill said it would make Arkansas safer by locking up perpetrators of violence in order to “incapacitate” them and prevent further public mischief. Opponents have argued that increasing prison sentences is an ineffective and costly way to try to reduce crime.
Arkansas’ prison rate is already among the five highest in the United States. The state imprisons more than 550 people per 100,000 residents, a much higher rate than any other democracy in the world.
In conjunction with the bill, Governor Sanders announced that the state would seek construction of a new 3,000-bed prison estimated to cost $470 million to build with an annual operating budget of about $31 million.
She said that the state has not funded the construction of large new prisons since the mid-2000s.
The legislative package also includes measures to recruit and train corrections officers, create a task force to reduce legislative backstabbing, create a public bail reporting system and allow prisoners who give birth to stay with their newborn for at least 72 hours after birth.
The measures in the draft law aim to be implemented by the beginning of 2025.
Arkansas lawmakers also approved a $124 million tax cut for the highest individual and corporate income tax rates in Arkansas during the final week of the legislative session.
The new legislation lowers the top individual income tax rate from 4.9% to 4.7% and lowers the top corporate income tax rate by two percentage points, to 5.1%. Budget officials estimate the cuts will cost the state $186 million in revenue in fiscal year 2024 and $124 million the following year.
The effective date of the tax breaks will be retroactive to January 1, which means that taxpayers will see the benefits in the current tax year.
The individual income tax cut affects Arkansans earning more than $24,300 a year, nearly 1.1 million people in the state.
Arkansans on the lower end of the tax scales will see a lower interest rate. An analysis from the Institute of Taxation and Economic Policy published by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, which opposed the legislation, estimates that 80% of the cuts would go to the top 20% of earners in the state.
The tax cuts followed the gradual cuts by lawmakers from lower, middle and upper incomes over the past few legislative sessions. In August, the General Assembly in special session accelerated cuts in top income tax rates for corporations and individuals.
Hester said the state has “responsibly lowered income taxes” over the past few years and has seen growth in both population and revenue as a result.
McCullough said it was “very disappointing” that these tax cuts targeted senior employees and businesses in the state because “that’s money we could have done so much more for education.”
And in the future, she said, it will be interesting to see how tax cuts, increased funding for governor’s education, and public safety initiatives work together or against each other.
Lawmakers also approved a bill to phase out the state’s “rule of return.” The rule is an ambiguous tax policy that requires multistate corporations headquartered in Arkansas to report income from other states where proceeds from product sales are not taxed, thus “returning” tax liabilities to Arkansas.
Sen. Gary Stuttlefield, R-Branch, introduced a bill on the first day of session in January that would ban drag shows near places frequented by children. It was the first of many bills focused on hot social issues, introduced and pushed by Republican lawmakers with the stated goal of protecting children.
Other bills like this would require a person’s sex at birth to determine where to use the bathroom at school or in public, classify health care that affirms gender for transgender youth as potential medical malpractice, and restrict teachers’ use of pronouns and names that don’t match students’ birth certificates. , and open the door for librarians to be charged with a felony for distributing content that parents and elected officials consider obscene.
All of these bills made it to Sanders’ desk, and some were signed into law.
Democratic lawmakers and LGBTQ rights advocates spent the session vocally opposing the measures, calling them an attack on the basic rights of transgender Arkansans.
“Parental rights, parental rights, unless your child is a transgender child and then you have no rights,” McCullough said. “You don’t have the right to take them to get the medical care they need. You don’t have the right to go To the bathroom where they get to know each other, where they feel safe.”
Public disapproval resulted in two bills being amended, including Stubblefield’s recall bill. It was altered beyond recognition in February to survive a potential court challenge, and the version Sanders signed into law as Section 131 makes no mention of “withdrawal.”
Senate Bill 270 is awaiting Sanders’ signature after it cleared the legislature on Tuesday. At first, it was a crime to have children in the bathroom of adults who did not correspond to their assigned sex at birth.
The House Judiciary Committee amended the bill in March after five hours of testimony from 40 witnesses, including two plaintiffs in a federal lawsuit against the state for passing a ban in 2021 on gender-affirming health care for minors. Enforcement of the law is now limited to adults who enter a bathroom with sexual intent.
Several members of the public have told legislative committees that Arkansas will be less safe for transgender people under a slew of legislation and that they are considering leaving the state.
Hester said lawmakers don’t want anyone to feel unwelcome in Arkansas.
“The state legislature believes that a transgender person is equal to any other person,” he said. “We fight back when a transgender person says we have to agree with them.”
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