Higher ed funding, healthy food bills advance

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 329 views 

Bills advanced in the Arkansas House Monday that would create a “productivity-based” higher education funding formula and would prohibit government food program recipients from using their benefits for unhealthy food. A resolution that would call for a constitutional convention to limit government failed in the Senate.

Under House Bill 1209 by Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, the new formula would base higher ed funding on the institutions’ success in advancing students. The state’s current formula is based on numerical enrollment and infrastructure costs.

The model would award funding based on credentials awarded, student progression toward degrees, time to degree, and other factors. More funding would be awarded for students enrolled in math and science and other high-demand majors, as well as students coming from more challenging circumstances. An institution could lose no more than 2% a year but could gain more.

The bill passed 80-10, with 3 voting present.

Prior to the vote, Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, called it “mean legislation” that would reward colleges and universities that are already succeeding and punish schools that attract lower achieving students who come from poorer families. Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, argued for the bill by saying colleges and universities are spending money to add amenities in order to attract students because the current formula rewards those behaviors.

The House also passed House Bill 1035, the Arkansas Healthy Food Improvement Act, by Rep. Mary Bentley, R-Perryville, 55-39, after a lengthy debate. The bill requires the state to seek a waiver from the federal Department of Agriculture that would allow the state to limit Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) benefits to foods and food products with sufficient nutritional value.

Bentley argued that the bill would help encourage healthier lifestyles in a state with high obesity rates that drive up the costs of health care. Alcohol and tobacco are already excluded from SNAP benefits, she said.

Bentley said that, when she was a child, her parents divorced and her mother participated in a government commodities program providing cheese, peanut butter and other foods that were enough to keep the family fed. Too many of today’s benefits are being used for unhealthy food, such as soft drinks, she said.

Several legislators questioned Bentley or spoke against the bill. Rep. Vivian Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, asked about “food deserts” where healthy food is not available for purchase. Bentley said retailers would make make more healthy food choices available if that were what SNAP beneficiaries could purchase. Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, asked about the high cost for grocery stores to comply with the law. Bentley said stores can use UPC codes to block out those items and that the bill would merely be used to prevent the purchases of a short list of junk food.

Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, said grocers oppose the bill and that it will affect those on the state’s borders competing with out-of-state stores. He said legislators should seek to incentivize purchases of healthy foods rather than punish the buying of unhealthy foods. Likewise, Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers, said retailers would face higher charges under the bill and asked how bureaucrats would determine a food’s nutritional value.

Rep. Laurie Rushing, R-Hot Springs, said she originally had been a co-sponsor of the bill but had changed her mind several times. She told legislators that years ago she had been a food stamp recipient for less than a year after her husband died in a car wreck. She was working two jobs while going to school full time, and she would not have been able to buy her two-year-old daughter a birthday cake or a treat if the bill were in effect. She said most beneficiaries are not abusing the system and that the focus should be on educating recipients.

“Why should we let the errors of the few paint the picture for the majority?” she said. “Most people that are on this program have fallen on hard times. They’re not looking for a handout. They’re looking for a hand up.”

But Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, replied that benefits are being paid by taxpayers. Rep. Trevor Drown, R-Dover, pointed out that the “N” in “SNAP” stands for “Nutrition” and quoted from language on the program’s website that includes the word “nutrition” numerous times.

In closing for the bill, Bentley said sugary drinks have been been linked to numerous health disorders. “I find no compassion in providing things that cause diabetes, heart disease, cancer, stroke, and large health care bills down the road,” she said.

Both bills now head to the Senate.

Meanwhile, senators voted 13-17 against Senate Joint Resolution 2 by Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, in which Arkansas would have joined other states in calling for an Article V constitutional convention whose purpose would be to consider amendments to limit government and require a balanced budget.

Under the Constitution, if two-thirds of the states – currently 34 – pass a resolution, then Congress would call for a convention where delegates can vote on proposed amendments that then must be ratified by three-fourths of the states, or 38. That process has never been used. Instead, the Constitution has been amended through Article V’s other provision where the process is initiated by Congress.

In presenting the resolution, Stubblefield imagined a conversation with James Madison in which the Founding Father would have asked about the state of the country. Stubblefield would explain the size of the government and the $20 trillion national debt. He wondered if Madison would even know what a trillion is.

But some legislators’ questions were not answered. Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, and Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, asked about the mechanics of choosing delegates to the convention. Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, said he also is concerned about the national debt and federal overreach, but he was voting no because he doesn’t trust what the convention might produce. He called the Constitution a “divine document.”

Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, argued for the resolution, saying it was put in place for states to amend the Constitution. Because of Article V, the Constitution was amended to include the Bill of Rights, to abolish slavery, and to provide women the right to vote.

The Senate voted afterwards to expunge the vote, meaning the resolution can be considered later.