A wrap-up of a successful session
By Josh Curtis, AAC Governmental Affairs Director
Since joining the AAC, I have placed every single issue of this magazine on my desk. Sometimes they get messy and out of order, or Mark leaves his coffee or a straw in the middle of them. I was cleaning up my desk after session and placed the 2019 winter issue over the 2018 fall issue and noticed the difference in the two covers. Many individuals, including myself, are fond of the winter cover. The cover for the fall 2018 issue had an empty staircase leading up to the House chamber on the north side of the state Capitol. The 2019 winter issue had that same staircase on the cover, but in a sharp and symbolic contrast, it was filled with almost 50 county officials, legislators, agency officials and AAC staff.
Counties had an ambitious legislative package entering the 92nd General Assembly. The only other legislative package that compared to ours was that of Gov. Asa Hutchinson. His four “T’s” package included raising teacher pay, tax cuts, transportation and transformation. HB1145 raised the minimum teacher salary by $4,000 over the next four years. The second “T” stands for tax cuts. SB211 was the third phase of Hutchinson’s three-part plan to reform Arkansas’ tax code. In 2015 and in 2017, he signed into law the two biggest tax cuts in the state’s history. With the passage of SB211, 100 percent of Arkansas income-taxpayers will benefit from nearly $250 million in reduced income taxes. The Governor has been successful cutting taxes in a responsible manner, and I suspect to see another round of tax cuts in 2021. The third “T,” which is important to our counties, is transportation. Road funding is a top priority for the County Judges Association of Arkansas heading into all sessions. With the help of the Governor and the General Assembly, road funding became a reality this time. Act 416 will provide an additional $12.6 million per year for county roads and bridges. The second part of the funding plan comes in the form of a constitutional amendment to be voted on by the people. If approved, the amendment will make permanent the one-half cent sales tax set to expire in 2023. This will continue bringing in about $44 million for counties. The Governors last “T” is transformation. This transformation effort will reduce the number of cabinet-level agencies from 42 to 15 which is the largest reorganization of state government in almost 50 years. Act 910 should create greater efficiencies, streamline government and save the state taxpayer dollars. Gov. Hutchinson’s successful legislative “Priori-‘T’s” should improve the lives of all Arkansans.
In the last issue of County Lines, AAC Executive Director Chris Villines outlined several major accomplishments counties made during the 2019 session. Those include road funding, marketplace fairness, 911 reform, voting equipment and retirement. These successes were the fruits of a lot of work by county officials talking to legislators and taxpayers. We recently heard the chairman of the House Transportation Committee say at the 2019 Rural Development Conference that he did not receive one single call to complain about voting to raise taxes on gas and diesel. That says a lot for a state with a majority conservative population. Our constituents recognized the needs for better infrastructure, and counties played a huge role in getting the required votes to increase road funding. County officials banding together to accomplish goals for the betterment of their constituents was on full display at the Capitol. House and Senate leadership were a big part of the success counties had, and I recently spoke with them about our accomplishments this session.
Speaker of the House of Representatives Matthew Shepherd said, “The House has 14 members who have served in some capacity in county government. Their understanding of local-level challenges contributed to our monumental accomplishments. From passing the biggest highway funding package in decades to reforming our 911 systems, it is evident that our members recognized the important role our counties play. When we improve the lives of Arkansans, we improve our communities. For that reason, local governments also stand to benefit from the work we accomplished to reduce taxes, reduce red tape for business owners, reform our juvenile justice system and improve education statewide.”
Senate Pro Tempore Jim Hendren said, “Our Senate members weighed the needs of county government and responded logically. They studied and helped modernize the 911 emergency funding structure to help ensure public safety. We utilized existing revenues to fund election equipment. Additionally, the Senate overwhelmingly supported increased funding for local and state road improvements.”
What’s next? First, thank your representatives and senators. They made tough votes but did the right thing to improve many aspects of life for all Arkansans. Second, educate yourself on the new laws and how they will affect you and your county. We recently held a two-day legislative recap at the AAC with more than 150 elected officials in attendance. AAC staff explained the different bills that became law. If you did not have a chance to attend, we will be mailing our Index of Acts to all elected officials. This is a catalog that lists all the acts that have any impact on county government. You can find an electronic version of it under the “Publications” tab on our website, as well. Third, which sometimes is the hardest part of the lawmaking process, is implementation. Change is hard but necessary. You should get a good dose of collaboration with your colleagues at your summer association meetings. Last — and I hope you don’t laugh at this — it’s time to start talking about priorities for the 93rd General Assembly.