Leader Blues

Friday, January 09, 2009

TOP STORY > >New session set to begin on Monday

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader senior staff writer

If local legislators were a basketball team, this would be a rebuilding year, with Lonoke, Cabot, Sherwood, Jacksonville and north Pulaski County putting five freshmen on the floor in a tough conference.

Among the new hands at the upcoming legislative session, which opens Monday, there seems to be widespread agreement that getting the new state lottery and the scholarships it will fund is a top priority.

All of their predecessors were forced out by term limits this year.

Only Dist. 19 state Rep. Walls McCrary, D-Lonoke, has previously held elected public office, serving as Lonoke treasurer.

McCrary replaces Lenville Evans.

Dist. 44 Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, replaces Will Bond. Perry is an insurance agent who has worked toward a stand-alone, Jacksonville-area school district.

Dist. 42 Rep. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, replaces Sandra Prater. English is retired from the fields of economic development and workforce development.

Dist. 43 Rep. Jim Nickels, D-Sherwood, replaces Jeff Wood. Nickels is a lawyer and a University of Arkansas at Little Rock business professor.

Dist. 48 Rep. Davy Carter, R-Cabot, is an attorney. Carter replaces Susan Schulte.

“The big issue is making sure that we establish the (lottery) proceeds to benefit as many as possible,” said Perry. “Fortunately we’re not inventing the wheel.”

More than 40 other states have lotteries and the legislative leadership has been studying what works and what doesn’t.

“I’m interested in education,” Perry said. “That’s the key to the state and to Jacksonville. Jacksonville will benefit immensely.

Anything I can do to supplement what Will and Pat (Bond, the former state representatives) have done, I’m going to do.”

He said he would look to the Bonds, to former state Rep. Mike Wilson of Jacksonville and to others for guidance in working to end the Pulaski County school desegregation agreement and to promote a possible Jacksonville district.

Perry, who does a lot of Medicare work in his insurance business, said he’ll be looking for a way to help senior citizens to make sure they have the right kind of benefits. “If there’s a way to obtain funding to provide dental care in nursing homes, I’d like to do that,” he said.

Perry is assigned to the House Education Committee and the City, County and Local Committee.

Nickels, who is assigned to the House Judiciary Committee and also the House Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development Com-mittee, said eliminating a penny of the grocery tax is a top priority for him.

“In today’s term-limited environment, even a freshman like myself needs to hit the road running,” he said, “jump in there and get with it.”

“I don’t think anyone disputes the need for a trauma center and trauma system,” he said. “But how will it be funded? Current revenues aren’t projected to take care of it.”

Gov. Mike Beebe has proposed an additional cigarette tax of at least 50 cents a pack to pay for it.

Nickels has pre-filed a bill to unfreeze property taxes for senior citizens if declining property values would make them eligible for lower taxes.

“The bill I introduced clarifies that for the county assessors,” he said. Nickels said he’d like to make credits from accredited two-year schools transferable to four-year schools.

He favors a nimble lottery commission, a special agency that can respond quickly to circumstances if needed. He expects quite a bit of debate on how the scholarship proceeds will be allotted.

English is assigned to the House Public Transportation Commit-tee and to the House Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs Committee.

“Getting the money right” is a top priority for English.

“My background is economic development and workforce development and as an economic recruiter, making sure we have a good education center and a well-qualified workforce” is another priority, she said.

Alluding to the current economic environment, she said, “Not everyone who goes to school is 18 years old. There are those going back to get a different job or something that requires greater skill. We’ll have layoffs and plant closures and must make sure people have new skills all the way along the line. I believe in life-long learning.

“I’ve always been a strong believer in manufacturing and I’m thrilled to death to see the Caterpillar announcement (opening a grader plant in North Little Rock).”

She said that most everyone would have to change jobs during their lives and must continually upgrade skills, including technical skills. “Who ever thought of a wind-mill factory,” she said.

“Jacksonville schools are real important to me,” English said. “Will Bond has done a really good job of pushing that. I hope for a quick resolution and I’m excited about charter schools. There’s a good opportunity for things to happen.”

Carter is assigned to the House Judiciary Committee and the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.

“It’s a quick learning curve,” Carter said. “Even the most learned legislator only has a couple of years.

“The lottery is going to be time consuming and the (economic) downturn is on everyone’s mind,” Carter said. He doesn’t want to see bloated administrative costs, including salaries, suck money out of lottery proceeds.

Carter would make sure that trade-school students aren’t left in the lurch when the state starts making that new scholarship money available.

He supports the effort to create a trauma center in Arkansas and to find a way to pay for it.

He’ll look for creative ways to encourage job development and will try to put some money back in taxpayers’ pockets.

“I’m going to be on the lookout to help the Cabot School District,” he said. “That’s kind of what brings people to town.”

McCrary, who will sit on the House Public Transportation Committee and the House Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs Committee, says a lot of time will be spent establishing the state lottery.

House Speaker Rob-bie Wills, D-Conway, has put a lot of work into it, McCrary said.

McCrary said there’s going to be a lot of demand for money in the state revenue pie. “A lot of the departments — like higher education — that have been cut are coming back and wanting their money,” he said.

“Budget issues will take a whole lot of time,” he added. McCrary likes the idea of a trauma system, but wonders how they will be financed. “All I’ve heard is a cigarette tax,” he said. He said the presumed effort to strengthen the penalties for animal cruelty has worked with the Arkansas Farm Bureau to make sure farmers involved in livestock and other animal husbandry won’t have to worry about standard practices.”

As for state Sen. Bobby Glover’s bill to give towns and counties some control over the dumping of Fayetteville shale gas sludge in their areas, McCrary said, “I think the cities and the counties should have some say, especially in light of some of the things that have happened.”

He said the governor has proposed more money for the inspection of the so-called land farms where the natural gas producers are dumping their waste.

“We want to encourage the exploration of our natural gas,” McCrary said, “with the right inspections and rules protecting both interests.”