Arkansas prison reform debate likely to follow tax cut, private option votes

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 63 views 

With the early session push to approve Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s signature tax cut plan and the challenge of pushing the private option’s fate to a task force eyeing end of the year recommendations, two state lawmakers said prison reform will likely be the next big agenda item for the state Legislature.

Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, and Rep. Joe Jett, D-Success, appeared on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics, which airs Sundays at 9 a.m. on KATV Ch. 7 in central Arkansas. Irvin is the vice-chair of Joint Budget Committee, chairs the Senate City, County & Local Affairs, and is a member of the Senate Public Health Committee. Jett chairs the House Revenue & Tax Committee and serves on Joint Budget.

Where the prison reform debate heads is anyone’s guess, Jett said.

“I think at the end of the day, you have 135 of us and right now I think you’re going to have 135 different opinions,” he said.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s proposed budget allocated more money for county jail reimbursements, where an overflow of many state prisoners are housed, and he offered about $1 million for drug and veterans’ courts.

The state is nearly 39% overcapacity with prisoners, some housed beyond limits in state prisons and most taking space in county jails. Hutchinson and lawmakers have been reluctant to build a new $100 million state prison facility and have said they want to explore other options before resorting to new prison space.

“There’s 600 beds that we could probably open up in existing prisons and find money to staff that,” Jett said of one option.

Irvin sees a way to bring private sector experience into the prisons to generate revenue and provide job training for inmates.

“There is some cooperation with businesses where businesses have gone into different prison systems in different states that we’re looking at and they’ve utilized that workforce. So you’ve got a job training-type program going on so when prisoners leave prison they actually have a job skill,” Irvin said.

Hutchinson has been mum on where the money would come from for prison overcrowding options while the discussion occurs behind closed doors on possible alternatives, such as revisions to Act 570 (which altered sentencing guidelines), possibly contracting with out-of-state or private prison operators, and exploring more re-entry and intervention programs.

Irvin and Jett said the likeliest source of funding for the eventual price tag on these reforms would be from growth revenue, which is expected to be higher than previous projections when the next budget forecast is projected.

“I think growth revenue and being able to responsibly put that money aside to pay for anything moving forward,” are sources, said Irvin.

In other discussion on the show, Jett and Irvin predicted quick passage of the remaining hurdles for Hutchinson’s middle class tax proposal, which now includes a 40% capital gains tax exemption. The Senate must concur a House amendment early next week before sending to the Governor for signature.

Jett and Irvin also predicted passage of a Private Option plan that would secure funding through 2016 while creating a task force to make recommendations by the end of 2015 to end the Private Option and create broader health care reforms in Arkansas. A key piece of the task force’s work is a looming 1332 waiver, that allows the state great flexibility in redesigning aspects of the Affordable Care Act beyond the Private Option’s limitations.

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