State house recap: CHART funding compromise reached
Although the Arkansas General Assembly is in official recess, legislators may still be called back to Little Rock to tie up loose ends before May 14.
"I think we had some major accomplishments during the session," said State Rep. Travis Boyd of Piggott.
He said, if legislators were to return to the state capitol, it would be for "general clean-up work," such as corrections, vetos, etc.
Boyd said Gov. Mike Huckabee and the legislature were able to reach a compromise on the CHART plan, which involves the distribution of the state's tobacco lawsuit settlement.
He said there are four major initatives with the compromise:
$5 million designated for prescriptions for the state's elderly. Boyd said the funding can be leveraged 3-1 with federal dollars and give Arkansas' Medicaid program a $20 million boost.
He said it will also raise the qualifications level for coverage from 80 percent to 100 percent of the poverty level.
"It will allow more people to become eligible for the program," Boyd said, noting an estimate 15,000 to 18,000 senior citizens will now be eligible for assistance.
An additional $1 million will go toward the Meals on Wheels program, bringing the state's funding up to approximately $1.6 million.
Boyd said it will allow additional senior citizens, who have been on a waiting list, to participate in the program.
Increased funding for breast cancer treatment and research. "That will also include include treatment and research for cervical cancer as well," he said.
Boyd said state funding is currently at $4.9 million and, with federal leveraging, could be increased to as much as $14.5 million.
He said cervical cancer leveraging will vary with some program items being matched 3-1 or 4-1.
$1 million extra for the school nurse program. "That's something I really held out for," Boyd said.
He said the nurse-to-student ratio is extremely high in the state, and funding will allow for program expansion.
"It's a good place to start in teaching the children good health habits," he said.
Boyd said the main CHART proposal stayed "original" and will fund various types of research, including medical studies.
He said Huckabee's teacher payraise proposal was approved but, due to revenue shortfalls, other programs were cut, including libraries, preschool funding and city and county turnback.
Boyd said when the governor first made the proposal last summer, it was believed there would be sufficient revenue. However, he said, projections for the next biennieum have been "drastically cut" a $63 million decrease in 2002 and $84 million in 2003.
To offset the loss to preschool funding, Boyd said the legislature approved a three percent beer tax, which will be collected in the state's 32 "wet" counties. He said the tax will average 15 to 18 cents per six pack.
Boyd said 8,936 children are enrolled in preschool programs, and the tax revenue will allow 5,345 to be moved off the waiting list.
A so-called "bed tax" on nursing homes will increase funding for the facilities by as much as $40 million per year, Boyd said. He said the funds can be federally leveraged 3-1.
"We hope passing this bed tax will do two things," he said. "Keep the nursing homes afloat and requiring them to increase staffing. That's something we're going to be monitoring closely."
Last year, the state's nursing homes lost over 50 percent on Medicaid reimbursements due to federal-level cuts, Boyd said. He said there are approximately 22,000 nursing home residents with 23 percent being "private pay."
Boyd said he is especially proud to have been the sponsor of "Katie's Law," which was approved by the House and Senate and signed into state law.
He said Katie's Law allows prosecution for sexual offenses involving children in any county if the origin of the incident cannot be determined.
"The exact county for the offense to have occurred had to be determined before prosecution," he said of the previous law.
Boyd said the measure was prompted by a child who was sexually molested during a journey to a grandparent's home. He said the parents had given permission for the child, who was age 5 at the time, to travel with the adult, reportedly a relative of the family, who allegedly committed the offense during the trip.
He said the individual was never prosecuted since the child was unable to tell law enforcement authorities, where the incident happened.