The legislature finished this year’s fiscal session on Day 23, when we gave final approval to a balanced budget of about $6 billion for state government.
Most of our attention was focused on public schools, Medicaid and law enforcement.
We funded an increase in reimbursements to county jails for housing state inmates, and we set aside money to build new prison beds at the North Central Unit in Calico Rock.
Appropriating money is only a starting point. Before any new building project gets off the ground, legislators are going to thoroughly assess the need for new prison space.
For one thing, projections on the growth of our inmate population have fallen short. That may be a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, but even so, we need to avoid a knee-jerk reaction that entails spending money on new prisons if the need is not as great as we thought it was.
It’s important to keep in mind that all prison beds are not equal. In other words, what we need most right now is more space for violent, serious offenders who are a true danger to society.
They should not be held in county jails when there is a backlog of space in state prison units, because they’re a danger to employees and to minor offenders.
The legislature strengthened law enforcement by significantly raising salaries of state troopers, so that the average starting pay will exceed $50,000 a year.
Also, we approved salary stipends of $2,000 for state troopers, and $5,000 for certified law enforcement officers. It’s a simple equation – if you want the high caliber police officers, you have to have competitive salaries.
Another important outcome from this fiscal session is what we didn’t do. We limited our consideration of non-budget bills to a package of bills that reform health insurance systems for teachers and state employees.
There were attempts to introduce politically charged issues, but a majority of legislators refused to go along.
Arkansas citizens voted for fiscal sessions to consider fiscal issues. They didn’t approve a full-time legislature for professional politicians.
The House of Representatives voted against an expansion of private school vouchers, at a time when the state is not fully funding all the needs of school districts.
For example, public schools are doing a heroic job teaching children with disabilities. But it is very expensive. Last year, there were more than $25 million in unfunded claims for catastrophic occurrences, so a voucher program for private schools is simply unsound fiscal policy.
In years to come, one of the most important achievements of this session was to fund community services and home care for people with disabilities.
The additional Medicaid funding will abolish the waiting list of about 3,200 people who need those services.
Speaking of Medicaid, we approved funding for the program this year without controversy.
In past years, approval of the Medicaid budget has generated bitter controversy, because of lingering political opposition to the expansion of the health care program in 2010.
It has been known as the private option and as Arkansas Works. It’s currently called ARHOME, and it’s vital for the health of thousands of Arkansas working families.
Under the Constitution, it takes a three-fourths majority to pass appropriations such as the Medicaid budget. In spite of this obstacle, we approved the funding without any problem.