Northwest Arkansas regional business leaders have unveiled their top priorities for the upcoming legislative session that convenes Monday (Jan. 9) in Little Rock.
The document is put together by the Fayetteville, Springdale, Siloam Springs, Rogers-Lowell and Bentonville/Bella Vista chambers of commerce, as well as the executive committee of the Northwest Arkansas Council. It prioritizes policies it encourages legislators to pursue in the 91st General Assembly that will benefit the local business community.
Jon Moran, vice president of government affairs for the Rogers-Lowell Area Chamber of Commerce, said workforce development and transportation funding are highest on the list. Other issues of importance are economic development and regional stewardship.
The framework for the agenda, Moran said, is based on the four program goals of the Northwest Arkansas Council’s strategic plan called “Building on Success: The 2015-2017 Blueprint,” published in January 2015. Moran said workforce training is at the “core” of the agenda.
“We have a huge workforce development issue, clearly,” he said. “I mean, to feed this growing economy, we need workers. We’ve got to keep working on that. With the global companies we have operating up here, they are always trying to attract talent, whether it’s from in-state, out of the state or across the world. They are in the same competitive market as [companies in] every other region in the country who are trying to recruit those type of workers. It’s imperative we stay on top of that.”
For K-12 education and workforce training, the Northwest Arkansas agenda offers support for legislation to streamline articulation agreements between area schools and higher education institutions. It also supports measures to decrease liability issues of area businesses that offer internship opportunities for local students.
For post-secondary education and workforce training, the chambers also support Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s efforts to create an outcomes-based funding model for higher education that is “accountable and transparent,” while promoting goals of increasing post-secondary attainment with a focus on affordability.
Establishing a statewide telemedicine program and increasing the number of medical residencies at the Fayetteville campus of UAMS are also included in the agenda. The agenda emphasizes infrastructure investment in highways, public transportation, alternative transportation, airports and water-quality protection are necessary for the region’s future growth.
Northwest Arkansas leaders support referring a highway-funding ballot issue to voters that will:
• raise at least $500 million annually for highway maintenance and expansion;
• include and extension of the half-cent sales tax – set to expire in 2023 – as at least a portion of those new revenues; and
• specify which new highways will be built and widened, including some “big-ticket projects.”
Legislation that will help the Northwest Arkansas Regional Airport in Highfill recruit a daily low-cost carrier is also part of the agenda, “as the airport’s current high-priced fares negatively impact the region’s business community.”