LITTLE ROCK – In the final days of the 2017 regular session, legislators completed work on balanced budgets for state agencies, prison units, public schools and higher education.
The Arkansas balanced budget law is called the Revenue Stabilization Act and it is necessarily one of the last and most important bills to be considered by lawmakers.
The act allocates more than $5.3 billion in general revenue. The major sources of that revenue are the sales tax and state individual and corporate incomes taxes.
Out of the general revenue fund, more than $2.2 billion will go to public schools. In Arkansas there are more than 477,000 students from kindergarten through grade 12.
About $1.1 billion will go to the Human Services Department for Medicaid, which will be supplemented by federal matching funds at a rate of almost three to one. Last year Medicaid spent $6.5 billion in Arkansas. Senior citizens, people with visual impairments and people who have disabilities account for 74 percent of traditional Medicaid spending in Arkansas.
About $346 million will go to the Correction Department for securely housing more than 17,000 inmates. The Department of Community Correction, whose officers supervise 50,000 inmates out on parole or offenders on probation, will get $83 million next fiscal year.
More than $14 million is allocated for reimbursing county jails when they house inmates who should be in a state prison unit, but who have to remain incarcerated at the county level because of a lack of available bed space in a state unit.
The number of state inmates in county jails will fluctuate daily, but in the recent past has exceeded 2,000 at times. The state pays $30 per day per inmate in reimbursement.
Higher education will receive $733 million in state funding, to supplement the revenue they receive from tuition, fees, donations and endowments. More than 167,000 students are enrolled in state-supported colleges and universities.
Among the final pieces of legislation approved this session was Senate Bill 658 to strengthen legal protections of borrowers.
The bill defines as interest the amount of money that the borrower must pay back that exceeds the amount provided by the lender to the borrower. In this way, it includes as interest the fees and charges that payday lenders have used to skirt interest rate limits.
Amendment 89 to the Arkansas Constitution limits interest rates on loans and contracts to 17 percent. Supporters of SB 658 noted that payday lenders often charge fees that translate to an annual interest rate of 280 percent. That practice should end when SB 658 takes effect, 90 days after the legislature adjourns.
Also, the legislature passed and sent to the governor House Bill 1621 to change the date of school elections from September to the general election in November or the primary election in the spring. Legislation to permanently move the primary elections from May to March is still pending and has not gained final passage this session.
Both chambers approved HB 2057, which gives the Highway Commission authority to raise speed limits on controlled access highways, such as four-lane interstates, from 70 to 75 miles per hour.
The Senate approved HB 1580 to levy a four percent tax on sales of medical marijuana. Revenue from the tax will pay for inspections and regulations of medical marijuana growing facilities and retail dispensaries.