Rep. Jett: Threat to Public Education Real
State Rep. Joe Jett of Success told the Times-Democrat this week that many of his constituents are not fully aware of the threats to public education currently swirling around the Arkansas General Assembly.
Rep. Jett said communities in his district are reliant on their local schools for viability, a situation that could be impacted with the potential development of school vouchers in Arkansas.
Superintendents from 16 schools were in his office recently in Little Rock and he told them vouchers and charter schools potentially could pose a "major threat" to the economic health of their districts.
"We are fighting this down here on a constant basis," Jett said, "and I just don't think people back home realize what a real threat it is."
He explained that, depending upon how a comprehensive voucher system would be implemented, the roughly $6,500 per student local districts now receive from the state would be redirected to charter, private or even home schools.
As an example, he said a private or charter school could be developed in this area that potentially could siphon off hundreds of students and the state money currently devoted to their education in public schools. He said some schools in his district could, in such a scenario, fall below the 350 students required for continued existence.
"Charter schools certainly have a place in Arkansas," Jett said, "but not in direct competition with our public schools."
He went on to say that many legislators favor the voucher-charter proposals, as do some powerful corporations in the state. He said one goal of some groups is to direct college-bound students to special charter or private schools and leave the public schools to students on a more vocational-oriented track.
"This whole situation gives me major concern," Jett said.
Rep. Jett said state prison funding and roads will be issues facing legislators as the session moves along.
He noted counties throughout Arkansas are owed millions of dollars by the state for previous and current housing of prisoners. "This is something we are going to have to address," he said.
On the highway funding issue, Jett believes it is so complicated that it probably will require a special session in the summer.
"State highway funding has pretty much flat-lined for the past 10 to 15 years," he said.
He said fuel efficiency in cars has affected tax revenue, while expenses related to road construction and maintenance have continued to rise.
One specific project for this area, he noted, is the continued effort to develop Highway 49 into four lanes north from Paragould to Marmaduke.
He also mentioned the need to continue asphalt work on Highway 90 from Rector toward Boydsville.
Rep. Jett said an effort to move the state lottery from an independent commission to state legislative control also is on the agenda.
He opposed the original plan for a lottery, but wants it to be as efficient as possible following its approval by Arkansas voters.
Jett is not in favor of the move toward legislative control because that leads to "expanded government" in his view.
"The lottery was originally sold as being operated independent of state government and I would like to see it remain that way...I feel like that would be going back on what we told the people of Arkansas."
Private Option, Tax Cut
The headline issue for this legislative session was whether to continue the "private option" to provide Medicaid benefits to some 250,000 Arkansans.
Many elected representatives ran on a platform of eliminating the private option, which they termed an offshoot of Obamacare.
But Gov. Asa Hutchinson was able to rally a significant number of his Republican colleagues in the legislature to support his plan to extend the program through 2016. At the same time, he has espoused the need to appoint a task force to study "Medicaid overhaul" in the state going forward.
"I guess you could say the end result kind of satisfied both sides," Jett said.
He said there were strong economic factors at play in continuing the program. If the private option had been abandoned, Jett said, the state would have been required to reimburse the federal government some $200 million.
It also is estimated, he said, that the private option could bring in $610 million in federal funds over a 10-year period.
Jett said that, if the legislature had "flipped the lights off" on the private option, it would have been exceedingly difficult to find ways to fund education, prisons and highways.
"I think the numbers opened some people's eyes once they got to Little Rock," Jett said. "I think you could say some of them were forced to stop campaigning and start governing."
Jett said he supported the private option for numerous reasons, including the economic impact on hospitals in his district in Piggott, Pocahontas, Walnut Ridge and Paragould. "My first priority on this was rural hospitals," he said. Estimates are that the private option funding leads to the generation of $500 million in gross domestic product economic activity in Arkansas.
Another projection is that 20-30 rural hospitals in the state could close if they had to continue on the previous course of providing significant non-reimbursed medical care.
Jett said Arkansans will pay federal taxes that support expanded Medicaid funding regardless of whether this state participates. "I just couldn't see us paying the taxes for it so that the money can go to other states," he said.
The other major legislation at the start of the session dealt with Gov. Hutchinson's plan to reduce state income taxes by one percent on middle income families earning between $21,000 and $75,000.
Rep. Jett supported that proposal, which passed easily after a compromise was worked out on a change in the state's capital gains tax.
In that regard, Jett believes the capital gains exemption eventually will be restored from the compromise 40 percent level to 50 percent -- he is sponsoring a bill to that effect.
The income tax cut affects some 500-600,000 Arkansans, Jett said.
Rep. Jett gained statewide attention early in the session when he was named chairman of the important House Revenue and Taxation Committee.
The surprise was that House Speaker Jeremy Gillam of Judsonia would appoint a Democrat to the crucial committee, which Jett said "holds the keys to the vault" in state government. Jett said Gillam received some criticism from his own party and certain media sources for the appointment.
"It's an honor and I am humbled that he gave me that responsibility," Jett said.
"I think people in the legislature know that I am fiscally responsible and am a man of my word...I don't get caught up in politics but am concerned about how issues affect my constituents."
"He's a really good guy," Jett said of Gillam. "Some people want a position such as his to consolidate or wield power, but he's not like that. He sees leadership as a purpose -- and that is to come up with the best possible policies for the people of Arkansas."
Jett plans to continue working in a positive and bipartisan manner as the session moves along. He anticipates its ending around April 10.