Northwest Arkansas legislators view pre-kindergarten, medical marijuana as session issues

by David Edmark ([email protected]) 212 views 

Additional funding for the state’s pre-kindergarten program could be found by a simple funds shift within the state Education Department budget, Sen. Uvalde Lindsey, D-Fayettevile, told a forum Tuesday (Dec. 13) sponsored by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.

Also during the forum held at the NorthWest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, said the legislature will spend a large part of the 2017 session implementing the constitutional amendment legalizing medical marijuana that voters approved in November. The process will take so much time because the state didn’t have anything in place to prepare for such an amendment, she said.

The state spends about $111 million a year on its pre-kindergarten program, Arkansas Better Chance, and has kept it at that level for eight years. AACF has been pushing for additional funding. Gov. Asa Hutchinson added a one-time supplement of $3 million to the program in 2015. Democratic legislators unsuccessfully tried to add $10 million to the program’s budget in this year’s legislative fiscal session.

Lindsey suggested the Hutchinson administration could provide additional funds for the program without appropriating new money in the legislature. He said the Education Department’s public school fund has $35 million reserved for compensating school districts with property tax collection shortfalls. If a school district collects less than 98% of its assessed valuation times 25 mills, the state must fill the gap. He said the state historically spends no more than $17 million to $20 million a year from the fund, so the department could shift some share of that unused money to pre-kindergarten support.

“That’s a change of policy that doesn’t require any new money,” Lindsey said. “We can redirect the proper resources with the help of the governor’s office.”

The state Republican Party removed support for any pre-kindergarten funding from its platform this year, but Della Rosa expressed her support for the program. Some Republicans fear pre-kindergarten might become mandatory and many in the party prefer family-oriented education at home for children at that age, she said. But among Republicans in the legislature, she said, “the things we’re doing tend to align with the things that you guys (AACF) are doing, which is good.”

Hutchinson is proposing a $50.5 million tax cut and some legislators want to see that expanded to $100 million, Lindsey said.

“Protecting the safety net is the thing that concerns me most,” he said. “We must do our best for the folks who can’t,” he said about people who depend on social programs.

Lindsey acknowledged that Donald Trump’s election as president might have helped save the state’s expanded Medicaid program known as Arkansas Works, which uses funds from the federal Affordable Care Act to help pay for health insurance premiums that Medicaid recipients buy. It’s been an annual chore for two governors – Hutchinson and Mike Beebe – to pull together enough support to renew funding for the program because of its link to the unpopular federal law. That might not be an issue now because of prospective congressional changes to the law.

“”We have a good opportunity on Medicaid,” Lindsey said. “Nobody argues against it any more. Obamacare is gone.”

The medical marijuana vote is forcing the legislature to build a regulatory framework for which it has nothing in place as precedent, Della Rosa said. Also, the effort is burdened because marijuana is still illegal under federal law.

“We have to set rules that violate a federal law because we’re constitutionally mandated to do it,” Della Rosa said.

She agreed with a questioner in the audience that the situation would be easier for the state if the federal government would remove marijuana from its list of Schedule 1 drugs, which the Food and Drug Administration defines as “drugs with no currently accepted medical use and a high potential for abuse.”

Della Rosa was also concerned that the push to legalize medical marijuana was a precursor to eventually legalizing recreational marijuana for the financial benefit of those organizing such efforts to place those measures on ballots.

“If it just stopped where it is right now (at medical marijuana) I’d be OK with it,” she said.

Lindsey and Della Rosa also discussed the politics of an increasingly Republican legislature. Lindsey is one of nine Democrats in the 35-member Senate; Della Rosa is one of 76 Republicans in the 100-member House. The House GOP caucus has been boosted since the November election with the defection of three Democrats to the Republican side.

Democrats must make their voices heard “without rancor and without being mean,” Lindsey said. He praised Hutchinson as “the grownup in the room to keep us from running amok.” He advised AACF members to lobby not only their legislators but also to talk to local school board members to make sure additional money appropriated by the legislature for education works its way down to increased teachers’ salaries. Superintendents who don’t provide raises should be called to the Capitol to explain why, he said.

Della Rosa – whom Lindsey called “one of the better members of the House” – conceded that the House Republicans might be better off without so many in their ranks.

“I wasn’t a huge fan of us winding up with 76 Republicans in the House,” she said. “if we just talk to ourselves, we won’t have to talk to each other,” she said in reference to Democratic members, and added that a few more Democrats might “force the conversation.”

Legislative Republicans will likely align with the governor on most issues, she added.

Della Rosa advocated switching to open primaries in which candidates from all parties compete against each other in one primary for each office, with the top two finishers going on to be the general election candidates. Such primaries are also known as jungle primaries, nonpartisan blanket primaries and top two primaries. In some legislative districts, that could result in two people from the same party running against each other. But Della Rosa noted that in many Northwest Arkansas districts, the Democrats don’t field a candidate and the Republican primary winner automatically is elected.

Open primaries would make it possible to elect more people in the middle politically, she said. In Republican primaries now, the race is about “who’s the most conservative of the conservatives. I’m conservative, but not blindly. If you want more centrist, you need an open primary.” Della Rosa said Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, plans to introduce a bill authorizing open primaries.