State Capitol news in brief

State Capitol news in brief

Scholarship-fund expansion defeated

A proposal to require the state Department of Education to budget and allocate $6.3 million rather than $3.3 million for the Succeed Scholarship program in the coming fiscal year failed to clear the Joint Budget Committee on Wednesday.

The program provides private school vouchers to students in foster care, students with disabilities and the children of active-duty or reserve members of the U.S. military. Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, proposed an amendment to Senate Bill 63, an appropriation for the state Department of Education.

Ten representatives on the Joint Budget Committee voted for the proposal Wednesday, while 12 representatives voted against it. The votes of 15 representatives are required for approval of the proposal amendment in the House part of the Joint Budget Committee. The proposal fell short of clearing the committee Tuesday.

The committee later voted to recommend House and Senate approval of SB63. An attempt to expunge that vote failed.

The Succeed Scholarship program is financed with $3.3 million in state funds plus $1.2 million in federal funds in the current fiscal year 2022 to provide scholarships to 646 students, according to state Department of Education Secretary Johnny Key. The one-time federal funds are financing 161 of these scholarships, he said. The scholarship is for up to $7,182 per student, he said.

Ray said there are close to about 200 current scholarship recipients who won’t receive the scholarships in fiscal year 2023 because the one-time federal funding will no longer be available to the program, and the scholarships are tied to state foundation funding for each student, so fewer students will receive the scholarships.

The schools with the most scholarship recipients are the Hannah School that educates students with dyslexia and Easter Seals Arkansas, which educates students with a range of disabilities, he said.

Rep. Jim Wooten, R-Beebe, accused Ray with trying to make state lawmakers feel bad about rejecting Ray’s proposed amendment Tuesday. Wooten said he is concerned about public education and the roughly 450,000 public school students not in the Succeed Scholarship program.

— Michael R. Wickline

Bill on China office pulled by senator

Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark, on Wednesday withdrew his proposal to prohibit the Arkansas Economic Development Commission from allocating, budgeting or spending funds for contractual services with any individual, company or organization for the lease of physical office space in China.

He proposed an amendment to Senate Bill 67, an appropriation for the state Department of Commerce in fiscal 2023.

Ballinger withdrew his proposed amendment in the Joint Budget Committee’s Special Language Subcommittee after Department of Commerce Secretary Mike Preston said “We will not be opening an office in China.'”

Afterward, Ballinger said that commitment prompted him to drop his proposed amendment.

Preston told lawmakers Wednesday that the special language added to SB67 at the request of Gov. Asa Hutchinson clarifies what the commission’s foreign offices can and cannot do, and there is no need for Ballinger’s proposed amendment.

In 2020, Preston told lawmakers the commission had already planned to trim the office’s budget from $285,000 to $125,000 a year in fiscal 2021, and employ an American citizen as a liaison in China. That budget continues to be $125,000 in fiscal 2022.

This week, the subcommittee voted to heed Hutchinson’s request to amend SB67 to specify that the commission is authorized to enter into contractual arrangements with private and/or public companies, corporations, individuals or organizations to operate foreign offices “which shall only … provide export trade assistance for Arkansas-based businesses, … facilitate the repatriation to Arkansas of manufacturing businesses operating overseas, and … encourage direct investment in Arkansas of foreign companies that are not state-owned or controlled.”

The fiscal 2022 budget totals $230,000 for the commission’s office in Germany and $180,000 for the commission’s office in Japan, according to commission officials.

— Michael R. Wickline

Medical services appropriation OK’d

With no audible dissenters, the Joint Budget Committee on Wednesday recommended House and Senate approval of the state Department of Human Services’ Division of Medical Services appropriation in fiscal 2023.

The bill is Senate Bill 54.

The measure would grant $9.05 billion in spending authority for grant payments of the Division of Medical Services, including $7.147 billion in hospital and medical services, $842 million for private nursing home care, $579 million for prescription drugs, $257 million for public nursing home care, and $207 million for the ARKIDS B program.

SB54 would set aside the first $37.6 million of funding allocated to the Department of Human Services’ grant account to be only for the home and community-based services for individuals with intellectual and developmental disabilities under the Community and Employment Medicaid Supports Waiver program or a successor Medicaid Waiver program. At the close of fiscal 2023, any unexpended funds set aside for this purpose will be required to be transferred and made available for the same purpose in the fiscal year ending June 30, 2024.

In mid-December, Gov. Asa Hutchinson unveiled his plan to provide services by June 2025 to the 3,204 people on the state’s waiting list for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities who want to stay in their homes and communities.

The state Division of Medical Services’ annual appropriation often has difficulty obtaining the required three-fourths vote for approval in the House and Senate because it includes spending authority for the Medicaid expansion program that currently provides private health care coverage for more than 300,000 low-income adults.

— Michael R. Wickline

Prison expansion moving forward

In a voice vote, the Arkansas House voted Wednesday to amend the Division of Correction appropriation to grant $75 million in spending authority for a 498-bed prison expansion at the North Central Unit in Calico Rock.

The amendment also will require an ammunition and ammo audit to be done at the Department of Corrections.

Several legislators debated the proposed prison expansion. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has estimated the prison expansion could cost between $60 million and $100 million.

Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, said she opposed the proposed amendment because she felt like expanding Calico Rock wasn’t the solution to overcrowding and is an imprudent decision.

“First, it’s expensive, so this appropriation allows for anywhere $26 million to $75 million to go towards just the building of this expansion, but that doesn’t include ongoing costs of housing an additional 500 prisoners,” she said. “Those ongoing costs will be immense. It will cost around $71 a day to house an inmate in this state. That equals $13 million in additional expenditures every year after this expansion.”

Clowney also said the issue could be addressed by taking a serious look at some of the crimes that were putting people in prison. She compared expanding the prison to putting an expensive ice pack on a broken leg.

Rep. Mark Berry, R-Ozark, said she respects Clowney’s comments on the need to mitigate some of the challenges with people who are in prison who might not need to be there, but said he also knew the challenges county jails were facing.

“Our sheriff’s departments have an immediate need,” he said. “We have a brand new county jail in my county, and it’s already popping at the seams because they have felons in that facility. They need a place to provide some relief for our county jails.”

— Stephen Simpson

Sorry for remarks, representative says

Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, apologized Wednesday afternoon for his remarks Tuesday when the House tabled an effort to bring a resolution authorizing lawmakers to consider an anti-abortion bill with a civil cause of action during the fiscal session.

Lowery invoked the Russian invasion of Ukraine in support of hearing the resolution proposed by Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn.

“We heard a resolution supporting the people of Ukraine and what they are standing for, freedom from tyranny, and if we don’t allow conversation, if we don’t allow debate, we don’t allow discussion on whatever the issue is, then we’re going right down that same road,” Lowery said Tuesday.

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R- Texarkana rebuked Lowery following the remark.

Lowery said he wanted to publicly apologize to Shepherd because he felt people misinterpreted his comments.

“They were not directed towards the speaker,” he said. “The speaker was very fair in the way he handled the ruling, and as a matter of fact I knew his ruling was correct. I only appealed it so that there could be some debate.”

Lowery also apologized to former military members who serve in the House.

“I know that there is no equivalency between what the people of Ukraine and what many of you who have served experienced and the things that we experience here,” he said. “It’s frustrating, and what I was pointing to and talking about was how sometimes the rules and procedures and parliamentary procedure are used to try and make sure that both sides are heard and that we do it in proper order.

“The tyranny that I was talking about is the net effect of using those rules to shut down debate.”

Lowery, who has filed to run for state treasurer, said that was no excuse for being incorrect in making a comment where there is no equivalency.

— Stephen Simpson

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