Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

TOP STORY >>Governor entrusts top bills to Glover

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff reporter

Gov. Mike Beebe entrusted the fate of two of his most important pieces of legislation to state Sen. Bobby Glo-ver, D-Carlisle, and as the end of the biennial session draws near, Glover did not disappoint his old friend.

“What I’m most proud of was taking the sales tax off food,” said Glover, the Carlisle Democrat who handled the bill for Beebe. It will leave about $135 million in the pockets of Arkansans.

Glover also sponsored a bill that would let Arkansans vote whether or not to issue $575 million in highway bonds for the repair and construction of the interstate highway system.

RESURFACING

If voters approve that legislation, the state Highway Department won’t have to raid moneys intended to resurface the secondary road system—state Highway Department roads that aren’t interstates.

In all, the state legislature gave taxpayers a $200-million-a-year tax break. Various tax breaks take a lot of people off the state income tax rolls and help farmers by changing off-road diesel tax from a percentage of price to a flat amount per gallon.

“We’ve increased the real estate homestead exemption from $300 per year to $350,” Glover said.

Of the proposed $575 million bond issue—which won’t increase annual taxes—Glover said there wasn’t much opposition to the bill, which includes a sunset clause. He said not only the governor, but truckers and the highway commission all favored the bill. He said the proposal would probably be on the 2008 general election ballot if the House passes it.

Glover said state minimum foundation aid, including money for pre-kindergarten, would be increased $70 million the first year and $38 million the second.

The General Assembly put $450 million in “surplus” funds into the public education facilities fund.

EMERGENCY FUND

Glover said he approved of the governor’s plan for a $100 million emergency fund, an additional $70 million for the highway department to resurface roads, money for higher education, the state Correction Department and the Department of Human Services.

In place of the old General Improvement Fund Structure, ruled illegal by the state Supreme Court, legislators voted to turn $15 million back to the counties and another $15 million to the cities. Glover said he was hoping that Lonoke County would get about $266,000 out of that to finish work on the new courthouse annex, formerly the old John Deere dealership.
“In the past we directed the money to local communities. (This) should pass muster with the state Supreme Court,” Glover added.

He said Pulaski County would get $929,000 and Jacksonville $265,000.

CAPPS BROADBAND

“I sponsored an Arkansas Connection broadband bill,” said state Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy. The bill would bring together behind closed doors, broadband Internet providers and various experts, said Capps, aimed at finding the dead spots in broadband coverage.

“We won’t develop the state as we should in the areas of health, industry, education and general economic development until we’re able for all areas to access high quality, affordable broadband.”

Capps said the initiative is based on Kentucky Connection. Kentucky has seen more than $500 million invested in infrastructure in the wake of its program.

“It will be the genesis of an organized effort where we will have providers talking to each other. It’s a very important bill, even though it doesn’t have a lot of funding,” he said.

Capps, a former radio station owner who understands the advantages of the technology, said that currently Arkansas is 47th of the 50 states in the deployment of high speed broadband.

Capps said he also worked on some bills for the state revenue department and handled some of state Rep. Will Bond’s school desegregation bills.

HIGHWAY MONEY

“I’ve been involved in making sure we get the $100 million for the state Highway and Transportation Department,” said Capps.

He said that should be enough to resurface about 300 or 350 miles of road—not a huge amount, but a good start. “I think it (the General Assembly) has worked better than in (recent) sessions,” said Capps. “There’s been more civility, better legislation,” he said, “Of course, it didn’t hurt that we had nearly a billion in surplus.”

State Rep. Sandra Prater, D-Jacksonville, led the way for the state’s first ever Traumatic Brain Injury Task Force, which the governor has signed into law.

She also sponsored a bill, backed by the trucking industry, that keeps truckers who failed drug tests for one employer from applying for a job with another. Basically, it’s a clearinghouse with access to a database of commercial drivers who failed drug tests.

“It’s passed the House 99-0,” she said and it’s in the Senate Transportation Committee now, with no apparent opposition.

CDL DRUG CHECK

“We hope there will be fewer impaired commercial drivers on the road,” Prater said. It also helps direct drivers toward substance- abuse programs. In addition to truck drivers, it would also include school bus drivers.

Prater has a bill that just cleared the House and is in the Senate that would require operators of private sewer systems, like those sometimes created for trailer parks or subdivisions in unincorporated areas, to financially assure the operation of those systems for five years.

SENIORS CARE

Another bill requires that seniors in need of care be advised about the services available to them, ranging from nursing homes to skilled nursing or home care.

“That should be on the governor’s desk,” she said.

Prater also is trying to find the money and pass legislation requiring all schools to have at least one automatic defibrillator.
Another good safety idea, but one without sufficient funding, would hire an additional five fire marshals, especially to inspect local schools twice a year, as mandated by law.

She said it would cost $300,000 a year to add six fire marshals to the state budget.

WILL BOND

State Rep. Will Bond, who recently passed legislation through both the House, and with the help of John Paul Capps, through the Senate aimed at winding down an 18-year-old Pulaski County school desegregation consent decree, is working on a companion bill and a funding source, he said Monday.

Bond’s second bill, at the request of the state Attorney General’s Office, would allow for some additional reporting from the districts on their unitary status.

“That might allow the Department of Education to understand what kind of progress the districts are making,” he said.
Bond will also attach $1 million to the education department budget to pay consultants and lawyers to work toward dissolving or amending the decree.

NEW DISTRICT

The bill already passed would allow for an additional school district in Pulaski County, presumably a Jacksonville school district.

It also guarantees the continued existence of the Pulaski County Special School District should Jacksonville break off from it.
Bond said that recognizing that the districts had achieved or nearly achieved unitary status could save the state about $60 million a year in special funding to the three current districts. Over time, Bond estimates, the state has spent about $700 million on its desegregation efforts.

Bond said he was disappointed that Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s lottery bill to fund scholarships and vocational technical education had been pretty well scuttled in the Senate Education Committee by the religious Family Life Council, which objected to the lottery as gambling.

TERMED OUT

Unless there is an unanticipated special session, this is the end of Bond’s career in the House, term limited out. “People say the term limits are six years,” said Bond, “but they are really four years and 90 days,” and if you just count the time the House is in session, representatives serve just about 270 days over those six years.

“It affects the ability to effectively and efficiently spend tax-payers’ money,” Bond said. He said it needs to be addressed.
He said it leaves people with less than one year’s real service in charge of a $15 billion budget. “I’m term limited at age 37,” said Bond—who has not ruled out a run later for the state Senate.

SCHULTE

State Representative Susan Schulte, R-Cabot, said she’s proud of the gains the General Assembly made in education.
“It’s good to see facilities addressed,” she said. “Our children are ranking better.” Schulte also liked the tax reductions made on the grocery tax and other taxes.

She ap-proves of the additional turn-back money apparently headed to counties and cities throughout the state.
“I like being able to still take care of libraries and fire departments,” she said.

Wood

State Representative Jeff Wood, D-Sherwood, said he’s most proud of the work he did with Prater. House Bill 1184, now Act 160, was implemented in order to raise the state income tax exemption for military officers from $6,000 to $9,000.

“We weren’t able to get it in last session for the officers but we got the enlisted,” Wood said. “It was a hard fight this session with all the other cuts but I’m proud we got it equalized with the enlisted folks.”

Wood served as chairman of the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs committee and was the Second District caucas chair.

“The thing I am most looking forward to is getting back into a normal routine,” Wood says. “Just being back home with my wife more.”

EVANS

Asked what actions he was proud of, State Representative Lenville Evans, D-Lonoke, said, “I’m going to have to think about that for a while. We’ve worked very well together this time. Speaker Petrus has done an outstanding job. The end of the session is going to get a little tense on the GIF money.”

A proposed constitutional amendment would allow voters to decide whether the legislature should meet every year rather than every other year.