Update from Government Affairs
A report from the January 22, 2011 State Legislative Forum
Every other week during the 88th General Assembly the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce teams with the Bentonville/Bella Vista Chamber of Commerce to host public forums for state legislators to provide an update on policy and legislation and answer questions from the audience. This past Saturday, January 22, was the first forum of the current session and around forty people joined State Representatives Tim Summers, Debbie Hobbs, Les Carnine, and Duncan Baird and State Senator Kim Hendren at the Doubletree Guest Suites in Bentonville to hear from their state legislators and ask questions about pending legislation.
The question and answer period kicked off with a discussion of public retirement plans. An audience member questioned whether elected officials should receive two years of credit in the retirement system for each year in office. Representative Carnine noted that a bill has been introduced that would eliminate this provision. Representative Summers informed the audience that many elected officials participate in Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System (APERS) where they can retire with benefits after ten years in office due to the 2-for-1 credit rule. Also, participants in APERS receive a guaranteed three percent (3%) cost of living increase each year. These sorts of rules have forced APERS to increase its employer contributions to almost 14% of each employees salary in order to fully fund the system. Representative Summers also informed the audience that there is no cap to what APERS can charge its members, which is an unsettling proposition for the cities and counties that participate in the retirement system. Representative Summers is a member of the Public Retirement Committee and will one of the legislators tasked with addressing the challenges to the myriad of public retirement systems in the state. One bill he has introduced would extend the service required to qualify for retirement by two years to 30. This two year extension would save APERS more than $20 million per year.
House Bill 1013 generated significant discussion among the audience and legislators. Representative Jim Nickels (D, Sherwood) introduced this bill, which would allow the state contractor's board to impose penalties on any contractor who knowingly uses undocumented workers. The bill would also require contractors to certify that their subcontractors do not use undocumented workers. Senator Hendren said that reason for the bill was to level the playing field between contractors. Some contractors have been accused of utilizing undocumented workers who are willing to work for less pay, which gives this contractor the advantage when submitting a bid for work. Representative Baird said that there are legitimate concerns about the bill and wondered why these rules don't apply to all employers. One contractor in the audience said that he doesn't have the authority to force subcontractors to verify that workers are documented residents and that the state should not require a state contractor's board to enforce immigration laws. Benton County Judge Bob Clinard, a former contractor, said that all contractors can do is accept the citizenship documents as presented. They do not have the ability to determine whose documents are real or fake. Representative Carnine said that the bill in its current form does not have sufficient support so he expected the sponsor to amend the bill to address most of these concerns.
The legislators also discussed highway funding. Arkansas Highway Commissioner Dick Trammel attended the forum and discussed some of the recommendations from the Blue Ribbon Committee on Highways. Representative Carnine thought that the only recommendations that appear to have any support are the ones calling for a statewide vote on a bond issue and a potential sales tax to fund new construction. These two recommendations would allow the state's voters to decide for themselves if they want to pay more for highway construction. Commissioner Trammel said the the state Highway Department only receives $240 million per year to pay for new construction projects. This small amount will not make a dent in the $20 billion in highway construction projects identified by the Highway Department. Commissioner Trammel said that if the voters want to see some of the major highway projects in Northwest Arkansas built in the short term then they should strongly consider a new sales tax to fund it.
Education was also a topic of discussion. The legislators were asked about HB1099 that provides flexibility on start dates and about legislators taking a critical view of public school's fund balances. Representative Hobbs said she supports HB1099,which would allow schools the option to start anytime between August 14 and August 26 instead of mandating an August 19 start. Representative Carnine said that the criticism on fund balances stems from a lack of clarity and uniformity in how schools present their budgets. Senator Hendren related his main criticism of public schools was the high remediation rate for students entering colleges. He said that students that must take remediation courses in college cost the state $74 million per year and that those students are less likely to get a degree. Representative Carnine added that reducing the remediation level also requires a stronger commitment from the students' parents who need to be accountable.
Johnny Haney, a member of the Northwest Arkansas Community College board of trustees, attended the forum and encouraged the legislators to vote against Senate Joint Resolution 2, which would strip the constitutional independence of public universities and community colleges and place them under the authority of the state legislature. Mr. Haney also reminded the legislators that Northwest Arkansas Community College receives significantly less state funding on a per pupil basis than many of their peer institutions and that the College would like to see all community colleges receive a more equitable distribution of state aid.
One final topic of discussion was the growing cost of housing prisoners at the state and local level. Benton County Justice of the Peace Dan Douglas said that it costs $40 per day to house an inmate at the Benton County Jail. However, the state only pays the county $28 per day for any state inmates that are being held in the county jail awaiting bed space at a state facility. Representative Summers said that the legislature is not currently considering a bill to raise the reimbursement rate, but they are looking at prison and sentencing reform that would move non-violent offenders out of prisons and enrolling drug offenders into rehabilitation and treatment centers instead of a jail cell.
The next legislative forum is scheduled for Saturday, February 5 beginning at 7:30 a.m. at the Doubletree Guest Suites in Bentonville.
Friday, January 28, 2011on