Budget reviews continue at Arkansas State Capitol
Greetings! We’ve completed another week of budget reviews at the Legislature. First, though, I want to commend the Ashley County Cares group for the lovely fundraiser dinner and event last Monday night in Hamburg. The group raises funds for breast cancer and they do a great job. It was a delightful and profitable event. Thank you to them for their efforts.
I also attended the Single Parent Scholarship fundraiser in Monticello Saturday night. There’s another worthy organization. At a later date I’ll give you more information about both groups.
I also had a great day last Tuesday when I participated in an accreditation process for UAM. It was a delightful and educational overview of UAM and its programs and community involvement. Of course they received high makes and praise from the visiting team of evaluators.
From there I met with a group at the old POW camp to accompany Ms Silvia Bizio, daughter of a former Italian POW stationed there during part of WWII during an abbreviated tour of the old facility. Ms. Bizio and her son, Matteo Borgardt, had come to visit the site her father frequently discussed after the war as the fulfillment of a dream for Ms Bizio. The mother and son are residents of California and are involved in the film industry. I’ll report more about this visit in another venue.
Now on to the rest of the week! The problem of prison overcrowding and a backlog of inmates in county jails was discussed by the members of the Senate and House Committees in a special meeting held Monday to discuss possible solutions. One of the possible solutions discussed was to transfer prisoners to a privately run facility in Louisiana. Representatives of the private company—which operates jails in Louisiana, Texas and Georgia—have offered to house up to 500 Arkansas prisoners at a cost of $28.50 per day, including in-house medical treatment. The company would also transport prisoners back and forth from Arkansas to Louisiana twice a week.
A proponent of the idea invited members of the committee to visit the Louisiana facility unannounced and talk to officials there. He said it is currently costing $58 per day to house inmates in Arkansas, while the Louisiana firm is offering to house inmates at $28.50 per day as well as pay in-house medical bills. There are currently 2,373 state inmates backed up in county jails across the state.
After much debate from both “sides” the matter was tabled for now.
Col. Stan Witt of the Arkansas State Police appeared before the Arkansas Legislative Council’s joint budget committee hearings and asked that the Legislature consider increasing costs for direct lien filing fees as well as filings for title liens. The money would help pay for new information technology employees, as well as software and equipment, and fund the agency’s Mobile Office Virtual Environment program.
The program, also known as E-Cite, enables troopers, and other law enforcement personnel, to automatically input traffic tickets into the court record from in-car computers, reducing the workload for court officials. It also allows agencies to have up-to-date information on drivers during any traffic stop. If Witt’s proposal is approved, the 50-cent fee for lien filings would quadruple to $2; the cost of direct lien filing fees, currently $1, would climb to $3. The fee increase would generate $1.48 million of annual dedicated funding, according to Witt. He also asked for other increases including funding to hire a large number of troopers in the next biennium.
Jay Winters, director of the Arkansas Crime Information Center, asked to add $550,000 to the $7.44 million budget of his agency, which tracks and provides criminal information to law enforcement agencies throughout the state. Among its duties is the maintenance of the public registry of more than 10,000 sex offenders.
Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, told state legislators, who were reviewing the agency’s budget for the next two fiscal years, that the agency’s maintenance crews still wouldn’t be fully staffed with recently approved additional employees. But, he didn’t think the department could hire more because in some places around the state it is difficult to find people to fill the mostly entry-level jobs.
When asked if adding more employees was the department’s answer to its lack of a robust response to a winter storm that hit north Arkansas with snow, ice and sleet that ground traffic to a halt for days on major roadways, Bennett replied that it was. He said the last few years, in the name of efficiency, the department has kept its employment levels down, leaving its maintenance crews at 85 percent staffing levels. The additional employees will bring maintenance crew levels to 90 percent of recommended size. The department also plans to acquire 12 more belly-plow trucks with its existing budget to augment the six belly-plow trucks the state already has. The total authorized appropriation for the current fiscal year, which ends June 30, is $2.2 billion. Ultimately the committee approved the department’s budget request, as a first step in a process that will culminate during the regular legislative session that opens in January.
Arkansas National Guard officials asked the state Wednesday to meet its total funding request for 2016 and 2017 in light of large cutbacks expected at the federal level. Adjutant Gen. William Wofford appeared before the Arkansas Legislative Council’s joint budget committee to request an increase in total state funding from $96.5 million in fiscal 2015 to $100.2 million in fiscal 2016. Wofford said the state’s National Guard would receive only 39 percent of its usual federal funds for training in fiscal 2015.
Have a great week! Please remember to go vote!