New Year Brought New Changes for Arkansans

Thursday, January 7, 2016

With the arrival of the new year a number of changes went into effect in the state of Arkansas. During the state legislature's regular session early in 2015, taxes, driver's licenses, prisons and vocational education were just a few of the matters to receive attention.

An income tax cut was approved for taxpayers who earn between $21,000 and $75,000 a year. Under the new plan the effective tax rates go down in 2016, dropping from six to five percent on those making $21,000 to $35,099 and from seven to six percent on those whose income falls between $35,100 and $75,000.

The state's taxpayers who make capital gains will also be paying less in income taxes beginning later this year. Under the former guidelines, they could claim an exemption on 45 percent of their gains. But, as of July 1, they will be able to claim exemptions on 50 percent of their capital gains.

Lawmakers also approved the governor's plan to attempt to relieve prison overcrowding in the state, and "better prepare inmates for release into the outside world," in compliance with earlier plans.

Under the changes additional beds are being added to correctional facilities in the state, and additional parole officers and support staff are being recruited. The Department of Corrections will also be allowed to contract with other states to house Arkansas inmates for the first time.

The prison reform measure also expands drug courts, which will hear charges against non-violent offenders. It also serves to organize re-entry programs for training inmates before they're released. The program is expected to address the need for job skills, anger management and coping skills for inmates awaiting release.

The new changes also stipulate that organizations who have the most success in preparing inmates for release will receive financial bonuses, with the success measured by the recidivism rate of the inmates they train.

The legislature also approved changes in the eligibility requirements for lottery scholarships in Arkansas. The lawmakers also voted to change how the scholarships are paid out, in an effort to strongly encourage students to remain in college for their sophomore year--an increasing problem.

Under the new program, scholarship recipients had previously received $2,000 for their freshman year and $3,000 for their sophomore year if they remained eligible.

Now they will receive $1,000 for their freshmen year of college and $4,000 for their sophomore year. Although the total amount would still be $5,000 for the first two years, in order to receive the full amount the students would be required to remain in school both years and maintain their grades.

The changes in scholarship amounts only affects freshmen and sophomores, as the amounts awarded for junior and senior years would remain the same. Under the program guidelines, juniors receive $4,000 and seniors receive $5,000 for the year.

As for students of two-year colleges, they'll receive $1,000 for their first year and $3,000 for their second year, rather than $2,000 for each year as was outlined under the previous plan.

Lawmakers also approved another significant change, as it is now stipulated that high school graduates may no longer qualify just by earning a 2.5 grade point average. Going forward, students must score at least a minimum of 19 on the ACT to qualify for an Arkansas Lottery Scholarship.

Legislators approved the changes in an effort to improve the lottery's cash flow, and long-term financial stability. In recent years receipts have declined, while spending on scholarships has remained static.

Lawmakers also re-worked the state's vocational educational system, as they sought to give business leaders more input into the types of job skills offered at the various technical schools. Based on the changes, two-year colleges, technical schools and adult education centers will now focus on teaching the job skills most in demand by local industry.

Another controversial matter broached by lawmakers was the approval of staff members to carry firearms onto the state's school campuses. Under the plan, local districts may allow those with a concealed carry permit to bring firearms onto campus in an effort to offset the costs of hiring full-time security guards.

And, the issue which affects the majority of adults in the state is a change in the way driver's licenses are issued. As of Jan. 1, non-commercial Arkansas driver's licenses will be issued for eight years instead of four, at a cost of $40.

As for commercial driver's licenses, or CDLs, they're still issued for four years at a time at a cost of $42.

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