State Senator visits PES, Reviews Session
State Senator Blake Johnson, of Corning, visited Piggott Elementary School on Friday, May 29. The first term state senator had the honor of delivering a check to the local campus for over $20,000, with the funds being awarded through the Arkansas School Recognition and Reward Program. Under this program, the top 20 percent of schools based on academic achievement, academic growth and graduation rates are recognized and rewarded with funding. For PES, for the third year in a row high test scores once again garnered them the additional monies, which in years past have been used for a computer lab and more recently new Chromebooks.
Following the check presentation Johnson spoke about the regular session of the General Assembly, and the just completed extraordinary session.
"We got an income tax reduction, which was a first for the state, although there was some work to be done with the budget in order to make that happen," he said of the session. "And, of course the capital gains issue went back and forth a bit, with revenue stabilization worried about that and holding it back--but it went back in and I'm proud of that."
Johnson noted he felt the income tax reduction aided the most Arkansans. "I'm glad that more people got tax relief, a lot of times there are special interest taxes and sales taxes, but this gave some relief to the middle-income earners and that's important."
He also noted the tax issues come into play as the state competes for jobs and industry. "With sales tax numbers so high it was good to provide some relief on the income tax side, and hopefully we'll be able to continue to do that in the future," he added.
Johnson also observed that despite what he called a "back and forth" effort at the capitol, other good legislation came out of the session.
"With the new administration and Republicans in control, there was a little bit different strategy--I think it was a little more independent and not as controlled of a session," he noted. "And that made the end of the regular session, and the extraordinary session, a bit tough."
As for the just completed called session, he noted the agenda was clear. "The issues were there, there was no hard line, we knew the issues going in," he explained. "Dealing with the change in the primary was the hardest thing. And, in my opinion that's much more for the national elections but it does have an impact on the local elections, too. And, I've been talking with (Clay County Clerk) Pat Poole on some of her concerns about the local election."
Under the change approved last week, Arkansas will join other southern states for what's being called a "Southeastern Conference" primary in March, changing from the current May primary schedule.
"But we're trying to go along with the other southern states and together we can have a bigger impact in a presidential primary election--and draw attention and get those candidates and their ad money to come to the state," he explained. "It is a sunset deal, so we'll see how it goes in the upcoming presidential election before we make a long term decision going forward."
Johnson noted he didn't have strong feelings one way or the other on the issue, but indicated it would have some impact. "It pushes our fiscal session into April, and as a farmer I understand it would make things a little harder on me trying to attend and do my regular job, too," he added.
The special session also dealt with a funding issue for an effort to attract a military contract to a facility in southern Arkansas.
"The Lockheed-Martin plan is for $82 to 87 million for infrastructure and training if we get the plant," he noted. "And, it has provisions for continuing so we don't have to go back and re-issue those bonds if needed."
The special session also included consideration, and passage, of an efficiencies bill which consolidates some government programs and entities. One of the departments affected is Rural Services, which is being combined with Economic Development.
"Rural Services was a department with a staff of about five," he observed. "So, putting them in with the AEDC I can see more help, and more assets, for that department to have to help rural Arkansas. It is an economic development tool for rural Arkansas, and putting it in with AEDC is a good thing. We'll see how it goes, but I think you'll see more assets available for Rural Services. They will still have their own commission, they'll just move under the control of the AEDC director."
Johnson added the measure is expected to cut $10 to $12 million in spending over the next five years.
"There were 134 jobs being cut, and some of those were high-paying positions," he noted. "Making those departments bigger is not always the best thing, but we'll see how it goes and we always have the option of changing it if something is not working correctly."
The lawmaker added he hoped the remainder of the year could be completed without any additional special sessions, but noted action may need to be taken on health care. "I sat in on the Health Care Task Force meeting some yesterday and listened to some of the testimony," he added. "I'm not on there, but I still have to make a decision after we get their recommendations."
Johnson indicated all agencies reduced spending by one percent this year, with the exception of expanded Medicaid and meeting educational deficiencies. "Controlling spending on health services in Arkansas is a challenge in budgeting for the future, and you don't want to cut services," he explained. "But, I think it's more about efficiency and more accountability. We need to take care of the people in need, but there is a real problem in DHS in verifying those who need it are getting it, and those who are not qualified are not."
The lawmaker noted the effort was still a work in progress, but added the issue of verification was foremost in his mind. "We need more accountability when taxpayer dollars are involved," he concluded.