Marking a successful legislative session

By Chris Villines, AAC Executive Director

Thank you all for your patience regarding the printing and distribution of this edition of County Lines. As many of you know, the 92nd General Assembly has all but wrapped up the regular session, and we’ve all been quite busy around here. This is my opportunity to pen a column bragging about our biennial success in a session, but I must tell you that the 2019 convening of the legislature was particularly good for county government in Arkansas.

Before we get into the first-blush results, the counties of Arkansas owe a tremendous amount of thanks to legislators across our state who listened to our needs and worked closely with us on positive reform in local government. Many of our early session concerns thankfully did not bear fruit, and our hopes for improvement were largely fulfilled.

We also need to give a great deal of thanks to each other, and your association leaders who constantly darkened the hallways of our state capitol to insure our voices were heard. And it gives me great pleasure to compliment an outstanding policy team here at the AAC on their hard work throughout the 87-day session. It all starts with our former executive director, Eddie Jones, who reads every bill that is filed to determine whether there is impact on county government, then a team of Mark Whitmore, Lindsey Bailey, Josh Curtis and Christy L. Smith who work with the groups they represent and communicate session dynamics back to you all. A supporting cast of Anne Baker, Holland Doran and Sam Moore kept everything flowing this session. Without their help we would all be at a loss.

But most thanks go to each of you, county and district officials, who communicate constantly with your legislators to keep them in the loop of county issues regarding specific bills. I cannot tell you how many times I would approach a legislator about an issue important to us and they were already aware of where county government would stand because of the communications you had with them. A profound thanks and collective pat on the back is deserved by each of you for your work this year.

The great NBA coach Phil Jackson, winner of eleven professional basketball championships, once said, “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” I can think of no better descriptive of county government during a session than this. Each of you come from different backgrounds, work in different disciplines, fall in different parties and have different strengths and weaknesses, but together we are unified as one representing county government. “Seventy-Five Counties, One Voice” was heard loud and clear — and the successes I can outline below are attributable to this unanimity and strength.

I’m going to use the rest of this space to bullet-point our successes, and I think you will agree that this session is a high-water mark for county government legislative accomplishment:

Retirement — We entered this session with several major reform topics on the horizon, some with merit, but many that were devised with no input from our greatest stakeholders — you. In addition, retirees could have been negatively impacted with reductions in cost of living (COLA) increases, yet many made the decision to retire based on what they believed would be consistent COLA figures into the future. Thankfully, none of the bills that would impact vested employees or current retirees were passed, and the co-chairs of the committee, Sen. Bill Sample and Rep. Les Warren, both opted for two years of regional meetings and input from stakeholders before we move ahead. More to come on this front.

Road Funding — Senate and House leadership and Gov. Hutchinson unveiled a new road plan that will increase gas and diesel taxes at the wholesale level by 3 and 6 cents, respectively. This increase will provide badly needed funding for our county roads and bridges to the tune of $12.6 million per year (ACT 416). In addition, a proposed constitutional amendment (HJR 1018), will be on the ballot next November and would make permanent a one-half cent sales tax that is set to expire in 2023. This, if passed, would continue funding of about $44 million per year that goes to the counties of Arkansas.

Marketplace Fairness — Counties, cities and the state have been suffering for years by failing to collect sales tax on some internet purchases. Though the tax was already in place, Senate Bill 576 (now ACT 822) provides the mechanism to collect new revenue of approximately $6 million per year for counties. We believe this projection is low, but regardless you will likely see a spike in sales taxes for your county when this law goes into effect the months following implementation on July 1. A shout out to Sen. Bart Hester and Rep. Dan Douglas for championing this long-overdue fix.

Voting Equipment — Unfortunately all counties in Arkansas were in desperate need of new voting equipment around five years ago. Also unfortunate was the counties reached out for help from the state and were given a hodge-podge of answers to the funding needs, with some counties receiving 100 percent of the cost, others 50 percent match and some, hopeful for a match, unfortunately paid 100 percent of the cost of equipment upgrade on their own. The homestead credit bill (ACT 808) moved approximately $8.3 million out of the property tax relief fund to the secretary of state’s office for distribution to counties in order to help equalize some of the funding indiscretions described above as well as to help fund new equipment for the 25 or so counties that are still using outdated equipment. Much thanks to Sen. Jim Hendren and Rep. Lanny Fite for their support of counties on this bill. The details on the funding should begin rolling out this spring.

911 Reform — Make no mistake, counties desperately needed help to fund skyrocketing costs for our public safety answering points (PSAPs) across the state. But to say this bill (now ACT 660) is about just money doesn’t contemplate the lives it will save. For many years our PSAPs have failed to communicate well with one another due to older equipment and antiquated technology. This bill will provide needed funding, oversight by a board of our peers and vision to bring our systems on par with where they need to be nationally. The thought that you can get on your phone and an UBER driver can find you in seconds while deputies and volunteer firefighters are left wondering where you are is something unacceptable with something as important as emergency communications. Yes, cell phone and prepaid card fees (user fees, not a tax) will increase, but the benefit of next-generation 911 will be something we all can support. We estimate the funding increase for counties (and cities that operate PSAPs) will increase in the $18 million per year range. Sen. Jason Rapert, Rep. Michelle Gray and Gov. Hutchinson are heroes for championing this cause, and we can’t thank them enough.

These few items give just a taste of the success of the 92nd General Assembly. In the end more than 1,800 bills were filed, 500 of which affected county government. Of the 31 bills in the AAC legislative package, 29 passed (a 94 percent success rate!), and dangerous issues such as sales tax caps and the aforementioned retirement changes never saw the light of day. We will be putting together meetings to go through the overall results and get the information out to you in the coming days, but for now I’d like to offer a congratulations to the counties of Arkansas. This will be a long-remembered session.

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