Money issues, especially financing of improvements to public school facilities, will be the major focus of legislators during the 85th General Assembly.
Lawmakers will work on numerous important budget matters, such as paying for the increased cost of providing health care services and operating state prisons. The Legislature will be asked to increase funding of state-supported colleges and universities, and to initiate a new highway program.
Law enforcement issues before the Legislature include proposals to tighten regulations governing the sale of certain over-the-counter cold medications, which drug manufacturers use to make illegal drugs like methamphetamine. Also, some legislators want to explore the possibility of changing sentencing laws for non-violent drug offenders.
State prisons are overcrowded, partly because of an influx of drug offenders who received mandatory minimum sentences. Due to overcrowding, the state Correction Department is asking the Legislature for budget increases of $35.4 million next year. Its current general revenue budget is $209.3 million. There are more than 13,000 inmates in state custody. Correction Department officials want to increase salaries to lower the turnover rate among security guards, which is almost 36 percent.
The state will spend about $533 million this year on Medicaid, a government health care program for the elderly, the poor and people with disabilities. Medicaid provides health care services to more than 700,000 Arkansas residents.
The state Human Services Department, which administers Medicaid, is asking for a budget increase of $15 million next year and $128 million the following year.
Officials of colleges and universities have asked for significant budget increases. Without strong financial support from the Legislature, they say, tuition will have to increase and therefore higher education will become less affordable to many low-income and middle-income families.
Now, the state provides about $568.6 million to institutions of higher education. Colleges and universities are requesting budget increases $55.9 million next year and $49.1 million the following year.
The Legislature convenes in regular session every other year, which means that legislators adopt two-year budgets for state agencies, schools and colleges.
Paying for repairs and renovations to public school facilities will be the dominant issue of the session because of the tremendous costs. The state is under a Supreme Court order to make school facilities substantially equal.
A task force estimates that it will cost $86 million for immediate repairs to schools in poor shape to keep them safe and dry. Another $1.67 billion is needed to prevent critical problems in roofing, heating, air conditioning, electrical and plumbing systems.
The task force recommended spending $111 million for repairs that do not require immediate attention but are still necessary to make sure buildings remain safe and dry. The facilities task force said it would cost more than $580 million to build adequate space for all students in Arkansas.
Some legislators and school administrators dispute the task force's figures on how much additional space has to be constructed.