State Capitol Week in Review by State Senator Blake Johnson en-us State Awaits Hearing on Death Penalty The state Correction Department has acquired new supplies of a lethal drug used in executions. The Department's supply of the drug had expired, holding up the state's efforts to execute eight men on death row for whom the governor had set execution dates. With the announcement that Correction officials had obtained new supplies of the drug, the governor said that he wanted to set new execution dates some time before January. Now all parties are waiting for the state Supreme Court to rule on... Thu, 21 Jul 2016 13:02:18 -0500 Lawmakers Reviewing Surplus Numbers Arkansas state government ended its fiscal year with a surplus of $177 million. When he announced the surplus, the governor said that he intended to propose further income tax reductions when the legislature convenes in regular session next January. Last year the legislature enacted about $100 million a year in income tax cuts for the middle class. Those cuts are being phased in and are reflected only partially in the revenue report released by the Department of Finance and Administration... Thu, 14 Jul 2016 09:22:55 -0500 Death Penalty Issues Remain in Arkansas Even after a state Supreme Court ruling, the protocol for carrying out the death penalty in Arkansas remains uncertain. In a split decision, the court ruled against eight inmates on death row who argued that a secrecy provision in Arkansas' execution procedures was unconstitutional. By a vote of 4-to-3 the court overturned a Pulaski County judge who had ruled previously in favor of the inmates' claim that sections of Act 1096 of 2015 were unconstitutional. In spite of the adverse ruling from... Thu, 07 Jul 2016 09:54:28 -0500 Evaluating the State's Educators The legislature enacted an evaluation method for teachers and principals with passage of Act 1209 of 2011. A pilot project was used in 11 school districts in 2013 and put in place in all Arkansas schools in the 2014-2015 school year. To follow through, legislators have been evaluating the evaluation system. Specifically, the legislature is studying the system it created in 2011 known as TESS, for Teacher Evaluation and Support system. Legislators on the Senate and House Education Committees... Thu, 30 Jun 2016 09:31:31 -0500 Monitoring Prescription Drug Use Arkansas is one of numerous states experiencing an alarming spike in deaths attributable to prescription pain killers. A physician with the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, in a presentation to a legislative committee, said that changes in state law are needed in response to the statewide epidemic of abuse of drugs known as opioids. They include hydrocodone, oxycodone, morphine, codeine, heroin and fentanyl. According to news reports, the pop singer Prince died of an accidental... Thu, 23 Jun 2016 08:52:30 -0500 DHS Working to Meet Needs of Arkansans The new director of the state Human Services Department presented to legislators the details of a restructuring plan that is designed to make business operations more efficient. The expectation is that the changes will save money and allow caseworkers more time to perform their duties helping people in need. DHS is the single largest state agency, both in number of employees and in the amount of tax dollars it administers. About 7,000 people work at the department and its annual budget is... Thu, 16 Jun 2016 08:57:17 -0500 Lawmakers Address Variety of Issues The legislature convened in a special session called by the governor to address highway funding needs. The governor's call has 12 items in addition to highway funding. Senate Bill 10, at 105 pages, is easily the longest bill under consideration. It would terminate a list of task forces, commissions and study groups that are no longer in operation and place the Arkansas History Commission under the state Heritage Department. Several measures are of particular interest to educators, for... Thu, 26 May 2016 09:50:56 -0500 Court Decision Impacts Arkansas Schools In a decision that has financial implications for schools across Arkansas, a Pulaski County judge has ruled in favor of the state and against a small, isolated district in the Ozark Mountains. The Deer/Mount Judea School District filed a lawsuit claiming that the state failed to comply with its constitutional duty to provide adequate financing for all Arkansas children. The district has high transportation costs because of its geographic size and its relatively sparse population. School buses... Thu, 19 May 2016 10:31:05 -0500 Highway Improvement Funding to be Considered With the successful completion of the fiscal session, Arkansas will fulfill its obligation to provide matching funds to go along with federal funding of Medicaid and other services. Now, attention at the state Capitol will focus on a special session the governor wants to call to address highway maintenance and improvements. One of the main goals of a special session on highways would be to come up with state matching funds next fiscal year so that Arkansas can qualify for about $200 million a... Wed, 11 May 2016 19:14:24 -0500 Update on Medicaid Funding The appropriation for Medicaid services was one of first three measures enacted by the legislature during the 2016 fiscal session. Not long after the spending bill became law the Senate approved funding for the Office of Medicaid Inspector General. Since last June, the office has referred 23 cases to the state attorney general, resulting in the arrests of 12 people for Medicaid fraud. So far, six people have been convicted and ordered to pay $26,887 in restitution and $9,300 in fines. The... Thu, 05 May 2016 10:38:05 -0500 DHS Big Part of Budget Talks During the fiscal session of the legislature the focus of media attention has been on the budget of the state Human Services Department (DHS), which is the single largest state agency. Public attention focused specifically on the Medicaid program, which is administered by the Human Services Department. However, it's important to remember that DHS provides numerous other services apart from Medicaid. For example, employees in the DHS Division of Children and Family Services investigate... Thu, 28 Apr 2016 10:09:50 -0500 Healthcare Funding Contested The conclusion of the three-day special session on Medicaid sets the stage for a dramatic vote in the fiscal legislative session that begins April 13. I voted against the Medicaid expansion bill because of its impact on the deficit. As a nation we cannot continue to expand entitlement programs without regard for the financial consequences. The supporters of expanding Medicaid mean well, but there comes a point when we have to take control of the debt we are passing down to our children and... Thu, 14 Apr 2016 09:58:21 -0500 Session to Address Important Issues The legislature begins several weeks of intense activity when it is scheduled to convene in special session on April 6, followed by a fiscal session that is scheduled to begin on April 13. The special session will be limited to health care issues. Legislators will consider changes to the Medicaid program. Specifically, the legislature will consider proposals by the governor to extend Medicaid coverage to adults with yearly incomes of up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level. Medicaid... Thu, 07 Apr 2016 09:49:13 -0500 Lost Items and Highway Projects Thousands of Arkansans have found lost valuables, money and keepsakes through the state Auditor's Office, which has the mission of trying to connect lost and unclaimed property with its rightful owners or their heirs. Sometimes the property is in the form of unpaid wages and commissions. Sometimes it is from old checking and savings accounts. It can be in the form of stocks and bonds, utility deposits, insurance payments, money orders or cashier's checks. For years the nickname for the... Thu, 31 Mar 2016 09:10:29 -0500 Budget Talks Underway The legislature began budget hearings in preparation for the fiscal session that convenes in April. Legislators focused on budget request from the "Big Six," which is a shorthand reference to institutions of higher education, the Public School Fund for schools that teach kindergarten through grade 12, the Department of Human Services, the Department of Health, the Department of Correction and the Department of Community Correction. The Human Services Department administers the Medicaid... Fri, 18 Mar 2016 10:23:08 -0500 Snap to Skills Program Arkansas is one of 10 states that will intensify efforts to move able-bodied food stamp recipients into the work force. The federal Agriculture Department operates the food stamp program, which is technically known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program and is commonly referred to as SNAP. According to the head of the department, Arkansas was chosen because "it does a pretty good job of using the resources they have." Also, the mix of rural and urban populations in Arkansas makes it... Thu, 10 Mar 2016 09:53:33 -0600 Medicaid Costs to be Reviewed The governor announced that he would call a special session to begin April 6 for the legislature to consider changes to the state Medicaid program. Changes to Medicaid are usually difficult because it is such a large and expensive program. Changes are needed though, because it has been growing as a category in the state's overall budget. Last fiscal year, the Arkansas Medicaid program spent $5.2 billion. According to a consultant hired by the legislature, conservative estimates are that... Mon, 07 Mar 2016 09:26:46 -0600 Update on Capital Punishment In spite of objections from the state attorney general, the Arkansas Supreme Court allowed nine death row inmates more time to prepare legal arguments against the state's lethal injection procedures. The attorney general had asked the court to expedite the case. A strong reason for moving quickly is that in June one of the drugs used in Arkansas lethal injections will expire. State officials have not yet located a new supplier willing to sell new drugs, so if the legal challenge extends until... Thu, 25 Feb 2016 09:51:49 -0600 State's Prison Population Continues to Grow The number of inmates in state prison units continues to increase, as does the number of parolees who are released early for reasons such as good behavior. As the Parole Board's workload has become greater, the legislature has enacted new laws to strengthen the credentials of the Board's members. Act 895 of 2015 was the major prison reform law enacted by the General Assembly last year, and many of its provisions are meant to stabilize prison overcrowding and to hold down the costs of... Thu, 18 Feb 2016 10:34:27 -0600 State's College Bound Students Show Improvement Arkansas students who are college bound continued to show improvement on tests that determine whether they need to take remedial courses in order to bring their academics up to college level. If high school graduates do not score 19 or better on the ACT standardized test, they must catch up their first year in college by enrolling in a remedial class. The ACT is the most commonly used college entrance exam for Arkansas schools, and it has components in math, English and reading. In 2014 when... Thu, 11 Feb 2016 09:46:08 -0600