Rector Chamber Banquet is Held
Somewhat weary and glad to be home after a long 100-day session of the Arkansas General Assembly which ended Tuesday, April 23, State Rep. Joe Jett of Success and State Sen. Robert Thompson of Paragould spoke Thursday night, April 25, at the Rector Area Chamber of Commerce annual banquet, touching on details of key bills.
Both Democrats, Jett is a first-time legislator who ran unopposed in 2012 for the District 56 House seat which includes all of Clay County and portions of Greene, Randolph and Lawrence Counties.
Thompson, who was elected in 2012 to a second four-year term in the Senate, represents District 20, which includes Clay, Greene and Lawrence Counties, the city of Pocahontas in Randolph County and the city of Brookland in Craighead County.
Both commented on a bipartisan compromise in the final days of the session which is bringing national attention to Arkansas. The state is the first to approve expansion of the federal Medicaid program through a private option which will allow thousands of low income residents to purchase health insurance through the state's non-profit health exchange.
The program expands Medicaid to those who earn up to 138 percent of the federal poverty level, Thompson said. That amount currently is $15,282 for a single person.
Thompson said the new program, hammered out through months of hard work, will have the largest impact on rural Arkansas hospitals by providing funds for now unreimbursed care, allowing many previously threatened to remain open.
Piggott Community Hospital is among those which will benefit from the new funds, he noted.
"We hope it will reduce dependence on the emergency room," he said, explaining that many who currently cannot afford health care go to emergency rooms, which are required to provide care to all.
"We hope people in the new program now will get primary care doctors through the Health Care Independence Act, which more than three-fourths of the entire legislature and the governor supported."
Chairman of the Lottery Commission's Legislative Oversight Committee, Thompson noted he did not vote for the state lottery program approved in 2008 and said he still has some concerns about it, but noted "two-thirds of you disagree with me."
He cited statistics which show 427 Clay County students received lottery scholarships over the last three years and noted prizes given to those who bought tickets in Clay County have included 23 at $1,000, three at $20,000 and one at $22,000.
Thompson noted there was some necessary tweaking in the scholarship program this year due to declining state lottery revenues.
"We had a decrease of $35 million in lottery monies," he said, noting it is common for lotteries to start strong and then level out.
While early recipients of scholarships given through the lottery program received $5,000, that no longer will be the case, Thompson said, though current recipients of lottery scholarships are guaranteed to receive their money.
Jett said one of his biggest concerns is education. "Charter schools are trying to take money away from public education," he said. "Schools are very important to our communities."
He praised school superintendents in his district, saying they have done a good job of keeping him aware of what's going on at home.
"My plate got full in a hurry after I got to Little Rock in early January," Jett said. "I got about 500 emails every day and my phone was locked up by 10 a.m., but that means people are engaged in the process and letting us know what's going on."
While Jett served on several committees during his first session, he said he was especially proud to serve on the Ag Committee (Agriculture, Forestry and Economic Development), on the Revenue and Taxation Committee and to work with Thompson on the Lottery Commission's Legislative Oversight Committee.
"I also was Minority Whip, which was such an honor and a privilege," he said.
Jett said while the early part of the session was contentious, legislators "took care of business" during the latter weeks.
"I never pushed a button along party lines," he said. "I always thought, 'How does this affect my people back home.'"
On a lighter note, Thompson said he always likes to find a favorite bill which is strange or funny. He shared two, both related to animal protection.
"The first, filed by Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, makes it illegal to sell or import apes (including chimpanzees), baboons or macaque monkeys as exotic pets," he laughed. "One lady who has several chimpanzees and calls them her babies was relieved to know she will be grandfathered in and will be able to keep her animals."
Another bill makes it illegal to sell lions, tigers or bears as pets in Arkansas. This came about, Thompson said, after a man in Harrison was given a tiger cub, which he loved as a baby. But when it grew into an adult tiger, the man took the animal to a wooded area outside of town and dropped it off. The tiger immediately started making its way back to the man's home, walking right through the middle of Harrison and creating quite a stir.
Jett, who attended with his wife Lisa, said, "Rector has always been like home to us. I need to apologize because during my campaign here I said we should all get out and help our neighbors. I discovered you're already doing that. I congratulate you on all you are doing. Your Helping Hands concerts are amazing."
Thompson also expressed appreciation to Rector residents, saying, "It is a real honor to serve you."
The banquet opened with an invocation, given by First United Methodist Church minister Mace Straubel. Chamber president Ron Kemp reviewed continuing projects of the Chamber, including economic development, the annual Christmas parade and flags which line the downtown area and highway for holidays and special events. He praised Gregg and Ginger Sain for providing funds for the recent restoration of the Rector mural downtown, a Chamber project in the early 1990's.
Emcee Danny Ford recognized special guests, including Mayor Gerald Morris of Piggott, Mayor Dwayne Phelan of Corning, Clay County Judge Gary Howell and Clay County Sheriff Gerald McClung, and introduced Rector Mayor David Freeman, who issued a plea for funds to support the Rector Community Center.
"This job has some fun parts and some not-so-fun parts," he said. "One of the fun parts is seeing lots of good folks here tonight who do so much for others. We have a lot of great volunteers who do a lot of hard work.
"One of the not-so-fun parts is having to ask for money," he continued. "Through the help of Robert (Thompson) and (former State Representative) Mike Patterson, we got a $13,666 grant last year for improvements to our community center. But part of the grant requires matching money. Our Community Center Committee has been working very hard and has raised over $7,000 through concerts, craft shows and more, but we spent most of that for a new air conditioning unit.
"We have four more concerts scheduled and a craft show Saturday, April 27, but we will still need some funds for matching. We need a second new air conditioning unit and we'll sure need it if we have a big crowd again for the Ultimate Oldies show at Labor Day."
Freeman indicated the committee hopes to gather $10,000, stressing the grant requires that all improvements to the center be completed by September of this year.
"So we can't wait until then to get the money," he said. "We need it now so we can get started on this work."
Ford expressed thanks to Freeman, adding, "Things like this don't just happen -- we have to make it happen."
All arrangements and decorations for the banquet were by Janet Manchester, who, in addition to serving as director of the Northeast Arkansas Innovative Training Center in Rector, heads the city's Rector Downtown Central program (a part of the state's Main Street Arkansas initiative) and works with the Chamber of Commerce. She invited friends to serve the food so guests did not have to go through a line.
A delicious meal was provided by Genny's Kitchen of Rector. Music for the event was by a four-piece Rector High School band ensemble, which received much praise.