Thursday, April 17, 2014

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas lottery sales, which finance college scholarships, have steadily declined since the first tickets were sold in 2009.
Lottery officials and legislators expected a drop off because other states with lotteries experienced the same reduction in sales after the initial excitement wore off. In the past couple of years, revenue for scholarships in Arkansas has declined from almost $100 million annually to an estimated $82.7 million this year.
Proposals to shore up lottery ticket sales have sparked a disagreement at the state Capitol that may spill over into the 2015 regular session.
The battle lines were drawn when the state Lottery Commission voted to proceed with plans to install monitor games, on which people can play a lottery every four or five minutes while looking at a computer screen.
The nine members of the Lottery Commission are private citizens appointed by the governor, the President Pro Tem of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.
The Commission’s vote to proceed with monitor games went directly against guidelines approved by a legislative committee in a vote taken just the day before. 
The Lottery Commission Legislative Oversight Committee is made up of 12 legislators – six senators and six House members – who hear regular reports from the Lottery Commission.  After hearing about plans to improve ticket sales from Lottery Commission staff, legislators on the oversight committee voted to express its opposition to monitor games.
In spite of the expression on non-support by legislators, on the following day the Lottery Commission voted to proceed with monitor games.
Individual legislators and the governor expressed disappointment that the Lottery Commission went against the wishes of the Legislative Oversight Committee. They voiced concerns that monitor games could gradually evolve into a version of slot machines that would be available in multiple locations around the state.
Lottery commissioners defended their action, saying that monitor games would be merely an incremental change in the way lotteries are currently played, and would not be like video slot machines.  They emphasized the need to reach new audiences and thus increase ticket sales, in order to maintain the lottery scholarship program that has helped 30,000 Arkansas students pay for college.
The director of the Lottery Commission estimated that installing monitor games could increase revenue by $4 million to $5 million a year.
Arkansas voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment authorizing the state lottery in 2008.  The vote was 648,000 in favor and 383,000 against.
In 2009 the legislature approved Act 606, the enabling legislation that put in place the lottery and directed how revenue would fund college scholarships. Act 606 created the Lottery Commission and outlined its duties and powers.  It is 117 pages long.
The college scholarships are called Academic Challenge Scholarships and the amounts awarded to students go up after each year they stay in school.
Freshmen at a four-year university who qualify receive $2,000.  As sophomores they get $3,000, then $4,000 as juniors and $5,000 as seniors. Students at two-year colleges get $2,000 a year for both years.
In previous years, scholarship amounts were higher.  Students who qualified for higher scholarships in past years will not have the amounts lowered as long as they remain eligible.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
LITTLE ROCK – Absentee voters would get a grace period in which they can present election officials with a copy of their photo ID, under a new rule approved by the state Board of Election Commissioners.
However, the procedure by which the rule was issued is under legal challenge. The Board voted on the rule to clarify provisions of Act 595 of 2013, which requires voters to present a government-issued photo ID in order to get a ballot.
The act sets out procedures that election officials are to follow when a person arrives at a voting place and cannot present a photo ID.  The person is allowed to cast a provisional ballot and has until noon the following Monday to show a valid ID to the county clerk or to the local board of election commissioners.
Absentee voters are required to submit a copy of their photo IDs with their ballots. However, the act is unclear about how to proceed when they fail to do so.
The rule approved by the state Board of Election Commissioners grants to absentee voters the same grace period that is provided to in-person voters who lack valid identification.  They would have until noon the following Monday to show ID to the county clerk or local board of election commissioners.
The issue has been complicated by litigation and politics. The Pulaski County Election Commission has filed a lawsuit challenging the state Board’s authority to write rules that are not clearly spelled out in Act 595.
The judge in the case has scheduled hearings, not only to hear the merits of the lawsuit but also to set out a schedule.  Parties in the case are seeking quick action so there will be no legal questions arising from the May 20 primaries.
Another complicating factor is the state attorney general’s role.  After special elections in January the attorney general was asked for an advisory opinion on what to do about absentee ballots with no accompanying photo ID. 
The opinion stated that Act 595 did not specifically allow additional time for absentee voters to present a photo ID, as it specifically does for in-person voters. Under the wording of Act 595 absentee voters would be treated differently than in-person voters, the opinion says.
In spite of the fact that the attorney general’s opinion apparently goes against the state Board’s policy on absentee ballots, the attorney general is representing the state Board in the lawsuit filed by the Pulaski County Election Commission because the attorney general represents state agencies when they are sued.
The state Republican Party has asked that a lawyer from outside the attorney general’s office be appointed to defend the state Board, in light of the fact that the attorney general is now in the position of defending in court a policy that he publicly questioned in an advisory opinion.
The attorney general, a Democrat, maintains that his office can adequately represent the state Board in the lawsuit because the advisory opinion previously issued was a specific response to a specific question – what Act 595 says about absentee voters -  while the lawsuit is about a different issue, that is, the state Board’s authority to issue new rules.
Acceptable IDs include drivers’ licenses, passports, concealed carry permits, student IDs from accredited colleges and military identification cards. If you don’t have one of those forms of ID, you can get a valid photo ID for free at the county clerk’s office.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
LITTLE ROCK – The state Agriculture Department promotes Arkansas products in domestic and international markets, and helps ensure that farm, fiber and forestry products are safe.
A relatively new effort of the Department promotes products grown in Arkansas.  It is particularly helpful to small growers who don’t have a large budget to market their products.  They can apply to the Agriculture Department’s marketing division for the right to place “Arkansas Grown” labels on their products.  The labels are distinctive, and help consumers easily identify locally-grown products.
For an additional fee, the Department will help growers market their products on social media and in traditional media.  The Department’s web site, at arkansasgrown.org, also lists Arkansas restaurants that prepare locally grown food.  It also has a map that locates all the farmers’ markets in Arkansas.
Agri-tourism is also a promotion of the Agriculture Department, along with the Cooperative Extension Service and the Parks and Tourism Department.  Destinations include Christmas tree farms, pumpkin patches and berry farms where visitors can grab a basket and pick their own berries.  A common denominator in these destinations is that there is no middleman – the consumer buys directly from the grower.
The Parks and Tourism Department publishes a 27-page brochure on agri-tourism that is also available on line.  It is a concise yet thorough summary of the economy, geography and culture of Arkansas.  One very useful page is a timeline that tells you which month of the year you can expect to find fresh products such as grapes, watermelons, sorghum and blackberries.
An agricultural tour of Arkansas, even a virtual tour on the Internet, reveals some of the state’s unique features. 
For example, it’s widely known that Arkansas produces soybeans in abundance, and that the soybeans are used in numerous food products and industrial applications.  However, few people are aware that Arkansas also has the nation’s only edamame production facility, and that there is an Edamame Festival in Mulberry.  It is a healthy snack made of young soybeans.
The brochure makes a sightseeing drive around Arkansas more educational. It helps identify crops that you drive past and it helps make sense of the “rural skyline,” which is dominated by grain silos, irrigation equipment and large farm machinery.
Arkansas was recently classified as a peanut producing state by the U.S. Agriculture Department. That means an Arkansas representative will sit on the National Peanut Board and have a voice in national policies.
Growing food is not just a business but also a science, and the University of Arkansas Division of Agriculture and its Cooperative Extension Service are leaders in biological, genetic, environmental and nutritional research.  The service helped Arkansas farmers break records last year in the production of corn, cotton, soybeans and rice.  Sorghum production was up, although it didn’t set a new record.
Agriculture contributed $17 billion to the Arkansas economy last year. That amount factors in farm production, the purchase of materials, supplies and equipment, as well as wages paid for labor.
One in six Arkansas jobs is in agriculture.  Agriculture represents a greater share of the state economy than in any of our neighboring states.re

Monday, March 31, 2014

Really Nice Weekend

What a great spring weekend we had. Sunshine, warm - but not hot days, a little windy but nice. I did manage to get 30 miles in on the bicycle Saturday and another 25 after church yesterday. Sure made me sleep better being tired from the ride.

The Howard Memorial Hospital Foundation gala was Saturday night. Mother, my brother David and I  went for the event. The decorations were pretty and as always the food was pretty good. We didn't stay late. The Hospital Foundation does good work in helping support our hospital.

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
LITTLE ROCK – The numerous severe winter storms in Arkansas caused the state Education Department and the Highway and Transportation Department to rethink long-standing policies.
            The state Board of Education approved waivers for 75 school districts that had canceled classes because of snow, sleet and ice. The waivers allow them to hold classes for fewer than the 178 days of instruction that are required under state law.
Before receiving the waivers, some school districts were looking at classes being extended to mid-June in order to make up for lost snow days. The problems were worse in northern areas of Arkansas, where school districts have canceled holidays and held classes on Saturdays. Some districts had lost 23 days to winter weather, and due to the waivers will only have to make up 13 of the lost days.
In 2015 the legislature will consider options for public schools to re-schedule snow days. One possibility is to allow schools to schedule longer days to make up for lost days. Some educators want to study the pros and cons of offering online classes to make up snow days.
            Officials of the state Highway and Transportation Department met with legislators to discuss the massive traffic jams caused by severe winter storms in early March.  The problems were particularly bad in eastern Arkansas along stretches of Interstate 55 and Interstate 40.
            Highway officials reported that snow and ice removal cost the department more than $18 million this winter. That is a dramatic spike over last year, when the department spent less than $5 million on snow removal.
            Some stranded travelers were upset when they saw comparisons with I-55 in southern Missouri. 
There were reports that Interstate 55 was in better condition on the Missouri side of the border. However, Arkansas highway officials noted that Missouri spends almost three times as much as Arkansas on highways. 
Missouri’s annual highway budget is $2.8 billion compared to $1 billion in Arkansas. Missouri’s highway department employs 1,500 more workers than the Arkansas highway department. Missouri has 5,100 people in its highway department and Arkansas’ has 3,600.
Arkansas has 700 trucks that can be fitted with snow plows on the front end, but only six that can be fitted with bellow plows. They’re better for clearing snow but more expensive.  Missouri has 570 belly plows just for its two southernmost districts that border Arkansas.
Highway officials outlined several areas where Arkansas can improve its response to snow and ice.  Additional training of employees in how to manage a snow plow will increase the number of drivers who can be transferred around the state to meet local needs.  Better communication with local police departments, cities and county governments will help the highway department place its plows where they can be most effective.  Another option is hiring seasonal employees in winter, as Missouri does.
The broader question for the Highway Commission is whether to divert money from construction programs and use it instead for general maintenance.  Doing so would slow completion of construction projects, while resources dedicated to snow and ice removal are not used during most of the year.
Arkansas voters have recently approved bond issues and a half-cent sales tax increase for highway projects, but that revenue cannot be spent on maintenance. 

Friday, March 14, 2014

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Trauma System, which the legislature authorized through Act 393 of 2009, saves more than 200 lives and $237 million a year, according to the most recent Health Department update.
The trauma system ensures that accident victims are taken as soon as possible to a hospital that best can address their needs.  That is not always the nearest hospital.  In the past, ambulances usually took trauma victims to the closest hospital, and if the patient needed a higher level of care it sometimes took precious hours arranging a transfer from one hospital to another.
Now, ambulances are connected with the statewide trauma system through modern communications technology and technicians know immediately whether they should bypass the nearest hospital and transport the victim to a hospital that may be further away but has a higher level of care.
To date, 70 hospitals are participating.  They include five Level I hospitals, five Level II hospitals, 22 Level III and 39 Level IV facilities.
Also, 114 Emergency Medical Service providers participate, which makes them eligible for funding for training and equipment. There are 23 training sites in the Arkansas trauma system for new emergency medical technicians and paramedics.
Level IV hospitals can stabilize a critically injured person, but transfer to a higher level trauma center is usually required. Level III hospitals can treat mild and moderately severe injuries, and most trauma victims can be adequately treated at a Level III center.
Level II hospitals provide comprehensive clinical care to the same degree as a Level I hospital.  Level I hospitals are considered community resources in that they provide education and outreach programs in their neighborhoods, and they conduct research.
Victims of injury are admitted much more quickly, in large part because of improvements in the statewide communications network that connect trauma centers and EMS providers.
According to the Health Department update, hospitals in the trauma network have changed long-standing policies so that now their medical staff can immediately accept patients, and an admitting specialist doesn’t have to be notified and therefore doesn’t have to spend time in discussions to arrive at a decision about whether to accept or reject the patient.
New Water Plan
            The state Natural Resources Commission has scheduled five public meetings across Arkansas to update the public on proposed changes in the state Water Plan, which was last revised in 1990.
            They will be in Texarkana, Stuttgart, Fayetteville, Russellville and El Dorado.  In addition, there will be a final meeting in Little Rock on April 29.
            Since the last Arkansas water plan was adopted, there have been significant changes in the accuracy of methods of measuring water use, so that a more detailed picture can be drawn that outlines the needs of agriculture, industry, residences and municipalities.  Also, the plan will take into account the needs of energy producers.
            The commission will complete the most recent version of the water plan by November. For more details you can visit this website: www.arwaterplan.arkansas.gov or you can call the commission at 501-682-3979.

Friday, March 7, 2014

A Picture of the Capitol

I took this picture Monday evening after I arrived back in Little Rock. I have said it many times before but.... our Capitol is a magnificent building and all of Arkansas should be proud of it. If you haven't been thru it I hope that you will take time to do that.

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
            LITTLE ROCK – If the legislature gives the measure final approval during the fiscal session, public schools could apply for grants to expand their broadband capacity with new fiber optic cables.
The grants would come from a $10 million appropriation from the state surplus.  The authorization to spend surplus funds on improved broadband for schools is in Senate Bill 146, sponsored by the Joint Budget Committee.
SB 146 sets up the Broadband Facilities Matching Grant Program. One goal of the program is to pay for one-time installations of fiber optic cables to connect the various buildings of school campuses, for example, to connect the district’s main office to bus garages, school buildings, classrooms and administrative offices of schools throughout the district.  The state Education Department has labeled the program E-rate, another name for its Universal Fund for Schools and Libraries.
The department has staff to help local schools through the process, which frequently draws from a long list of acronyms and abbreviations.  At least someone who wrote the instruction manual had a sense of humor – POTS refers to Plain Old Telephone Service for receiving and making calls.
            State government will end the current fiscal year with an estimated surplus of $126 million.  The governor has said that an argument in favor of using $10 million for fiber optic connections for schools is that the money likely would be matched with up to $4 million from private sources, such as educational foundations.
            School districts for E-rate funding for fiber optic connections must have computers and hardware in place, as well as staff with sufficient training to use the technology.  Also, they must be able to maintain their computer equipment.
            First priority is for telecommunications and Internet access. Any available funds left over may be awarded to schools for internal connections and basic maintenance of those internal connections.
            The Federal Communications Commission oversees the nation’s E-rate funding program. According to guidelines issued by the state Education Department, applicants for grants must rely on a competitive bidding process and not on sole source bidding.
Near Record Deer Season
            The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission reported that the harvest of deer in the 2013-2014 season was very close to the record set last year.  It fell short by only 288 deer.
            Last year deer hunters set the current record when they checked in 213,487 deer. Of those, 110,448 were bucks and 103,039 were does.
            This season hunters checked in 213,199 deer.  It was the first season ever when more does (107,247) than bucks (105,952) were checked in.
            Specialists in deer hunting at the Game and Fish Commission said that in the past as many as 70 percent of the deers harvested were bucks, and that the almost nearly equal harvest of bucks and does will result in a stronger and healthier herd.
            For the second year in a row, Union County led the state in the number of deer checked in.  In second place was Drew County, followed in order by Cleveland, Bradley, Ashley, Grant, Columbia, Washington, Clark and Arkansas Counties.

Thursday, February 27, 2014

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
            LITTLE ROCK – The largest highway construction program in state history got off to a good start when the Highway Commission opened bids for a $52.7 million project in northwest Arkansas.
            The project is the next phase in the Bella Vista bypass.  It will relieve congestion in that city and eventually become part of the route of Interstate 49 between Canada and New Orleans.  It’s the first project in the Connecting Arkansas Program (CAP), which will be paid with revenue from a half cent sales tax collected for 10 years. 
The tax was approved by voters in a 2012 state election.  It will finance an investment of $1.8 billion in 31 separate highway construction projects extending 180 miles.  Those projects will be concentrated in 19 heavily traveled corridors.
A new Internet web site tracks the progress of the CAP projects.  It has various maps and it will update information about lane closures in construction zones.
You also can access the web site through IDriveArkansas.com
The half cent sales tax for highways generated almost $13.3 million in January, which is 4.4 percent below forecasts. At the Highway Commission meeting, a finance officer reported that February revenue also was on pace to come in below estimates.
Initial estimates were for the half cent sales tax to generate $160 million a year for the state Highway and Transportation Department and $35 million a year for counties and cities.  That represents the traditional division of highway revenue in Arkansas, under which the state receives 70 percent, counties get 15 percent and cities get 15 percent.
The constitutional amendment approved by voters last year also created a permanent fund for city street projects, similar to the aid for counties fund. The city street aid fund is replenished with revenue from one cent of existing motor fuels taxes collected on sales of gasoline. It will generate about $20 million a year. Cities apply for funding from that account and must put up 10 percent of the cost of a project. The state aid fund will match it with 90 percent.
Act 1032 of 2011 creates a committee of nine mayors to determine how money from the state aid fund is to be distributed.  The mayors are appointed by the governor, the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tem of the Senate, each of whom must appoint at least one mayor from a city of more than 25,000 residents.
Tourism Tax Revenue
The state tourism tax is a 2 percent sales tax on items related to tourism, such as hotel rooms and boat rentals.  In 2013 the tax generated $12.7 million, a record.  That money will pay for advertising and promotions of Arkansas as a tourist destination.
Arkansas tourism is rebounding after a national economic slump in 2009 had a negative effect on tourist destinations in every state.  In 2009 the state tourism tax generated $11.3 million.
Tourism officials reported that 103,400 people worked in the leisure and hospitality businesses in Arkansas in December.  The economic impact of tourism in Arkansas is an estimated $5.7 billion a year.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review
            LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Lottery Commission has revised downward its revenue estimate for the current year, from $89.5 million to $82.8 million.
            Higher education officials are paying close attention to the negative trend because revenue from lottery tickets is the financial foundation for the popular Academic Challenge Scholarship Program.  If the decline continues, the amounts of college scholarships may have to be lowered.
The decline in sales has been in scratch off tickets.  Those tickets generally pay smaller prizes but consumers know immediately whether or not they have won.  Last month sales of scratch off tickets went down by 20 percent, to $24.8 million.  For the first seven months of the current fiscal year, which began July 1, 2013, sales are down $15.4 million from the same period the previous fiscal year.
Sales of lottery tickets for enormous prizes, such as Powerball and Mega Millions, actually went up last month. For the first seven months of this fiscal year those sales are $7.2 million above the same period of the previous year.
The legislature has twice had to restructure scholarship amounts in response to declining lottery sales, which used to be closer to $100 million a year.  Lottery commissioners voiced concern that sales appear to be heading downward toward $70 million a year.
The Lottery Commission is studying possible methods to boost lottery sales, such as allowing consumers to use a debit card instead of cash. Another possibility that has been discussed is Keno, a game that could be played frequently on computer monitors. 
Also, the Commission has discussed a change in regulations that would allow more types of retail outlets to sell lottery tickets.
The state lottery spent almost $400,000 in January on advertising and promotions.  More than $20.3 million was awarded in prizes. Retail stores that sold lottery tickets were paid more than $1.7 million in commissions.
Lottery Commission staff said recommendations should be ready in time for the legislature to consider them during the 2015 regular session.
The nine members of the commission are appointed by the governor, the President Pro Tem of the Senate and the Speaker of the House of Representatives.  There are 1,881 retail outlets in Arkansas that sell tickets.
Unclaimed Property
            The state auditor reported that the amount of unclaimed property claims have gone up 84 percent, in large part due to automation. Every year the auditor administers the Great Arkansas Treasure Hunt, a promotion designed to make people aware of any unclaimed property they may be entitled to.
            In 2012 there were 7,554 claims for property, valued at $7,272,205, were paid through the auditor’s office.  In 2013 the auditor’s office paid 17,689 claims worth $13,426,189 by the end of 2013.
People claimed money and stocks from old safety deposit boxes.  They received old refunds from utilities.  They got stocks, securities and proceeds from mineral rights they had forgotten they owned, or never realized that they had inherited.
            Now, claims can be filed online, rather than by filling out paper forms. To do so, go to this Internet address: www.auditor.ar.gov