Legislative leaders see broadband expansion as crucial for education and economic development, predict a revenue-neutral solution to highway funding, and say reforms to health care – not a name change – will drive the direction of that debate.
Appearing on this week’s edition of Talk Business & Politics, Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, and Senate President Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, discussed these topics with host Roby Brock.
With a governor’s working group on highway funding poised to send five potential options to Gov. Asa Hutchinson, Dismang and Gillam said there is a lack of consensus on the details, but there may be agreement on a guiding philosophy.
“First and foremost, whatever we do, we want to be revenue-neutral to the state,” said Dismang. “Maybe shifting some of our current spending into a different direction for highways or increasing a tax that’s related to the highway usage and decreasing one that’s more broad-based for the people of Arkansas.”
“It’s been a great debate and I think it’s been very positive and healthy for us to look at all of these different options,” said Gillam, who underscored that members are just now focusing on the final recommendations.
One suggestion would be to take state desegregation payments of nearly $70 million annually and redirect that funding to highways. Two sessions ago, that line-item in the budget was dedicated to removing the final percentages of the grocery tax, a major legislative goal for then-Gov. Mike Beebe.
Gillam said there is support among House members for redirecting that money.
“How widespread it is, we don’t know because most of us have been scattered among all our different committees and so we haven’t been all together a lot to have these discussions,” he said. “It has potential to get traction in the House, I think.”
Dismang agreed: “I think everything should be on the table.”
Discussing the recent Stephen Group report, Dismang and Gillam said the cost savings portions of the recommendations will be the primary focus of lawmakers, especially on the managed care front.
“I think that could be a fairly large cost-saver,” said Dismang, who acknowledged that additional contract management by the state would pose challenges. The Joint Peer Review committee of the Arkansas Legislature has been scrutinizing a number of Human Services contracts that have revealed cost overruns and poor performance accomplishments.
Gillam sees the Legislative Health Reform Task Force committee providing more clarity in the next 3-4 weeks as it hones in on final recommendations. He said there is less concern over the name “the private option” and more interest in what changes may occur.
“Most of our members, that I hear, are more concerned about what’s in [the recommendations] versus what it’s called,” he said.
Last week, Gillam and Dismang discussed the need to game-plan a broadband strategy for the state for the 2017 regular session.
“Mainly, affordability and access is what we’re after,” said Gillam. “Looking at the landscape over the last couple of years and the debate that’s been going on as far as the delivery to K-12 educational facilities, we got to realize in our conversations that we’re kind of missing a huge component of what’s in everybody’s homes and businesses.”
Dismang said last week’s public pronouncement to move on the policy side of broadband was to get a conversation moving.
“What we really wanted to do was make sure that the members understood there was an urgency to us getting to a resolution to where we want to go in broadband – identify the situation that we have, map out a plan, set a stringent timeline and actually have some goals in place for us as we reach the next session,” he said.
Watch their full interview below.