Tax reform, remote learning, and alternatives to prison were just a few of the 2021 legislative topics discussed on Tuesday (Nov. 17) at the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families’ virtual Children’s Policy Summit.
A bipartisan panel of state lawmakers offered their thoughts on key issues they plan to advance as part of the 93rd General Assembly, which opens in January 2021.
Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, discussed the challenges with remote learning, which have become critical during the COVID-19 pandemic that closed schools last Spring. This fall, K-12 schools have had to offer online learning classes to supplement and sometimes replace in-person teaching.
Flowers advocated for stronger broadband infrastructure and greater consistency across the state’s school districts.
“Remote learning had been kind of sketchy throughout my district because of access to the types of equipment that’s needed and even the broadband that’s necessary,” she said.
Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, echoed Sen. Flowers’ concerns including the long-term effects on children’s mental well-being.
“Not just on the learning, but also on some of the mental challenges and depression and the anxiety that so many of these kids are going to be going through because they don’t have the normal interaction, they’re so accustomed to,” Hendren warned. “We’re going to have to address it.”
Sen. Flowers also discussed state takeovers of school districts. She represents an area where two school districts – the Dollarway School District and Pine Bluff School District – have been under state jurisdiction. Flowers criticized the Arkansas State Department of Education, saying there needs to be more accountability.
Rep. Denise Garner, D-Fayetteville, added whether it’s education or healthcare – these are systemic issues they need to be worked out through state policy. Garner is starting a caucus for early childhood well-being.
“We’re looking at healthcare, we’re looking at education, we’re looking at a lot of things that Arkansas does well, but we have a real problem with access with quality, access and affordability,” she said.
The forum included a lawmaker discussion on legislation they plan to present next year. Rep. Carol Dalby, R-Texarkana, said she’s working on specialty court legislation in hopes of keeping low-risk offenders from being incarcerated.
“We’ve got to put them through an alternative plan, which would help keep families together and keep that bread winner working,” Rep. Dalby said.
Sen. Hendren highlighted two bills he has already filed for the legislative session. One affects taxes and the other addresses hate crimes; both will be controversial.
“I filed them the first day because I think they’re both going to take a lot of work,” he said.
SB2 would create an earned income tax credit for low-income families while also increasing the tax on tobacco and vaping products – a bill Hendren worked on two years ago that passed in the Arkansas Senate, but fell short in the Arkansas House.
“It’s basically a revenue-neutral bill and the concept being those who smoke choose to do so, but right now there’s about a $500-$600 million bill that taxpayers are picking up for those healthcare costs,” Sen. Hendren said.
SB3 creates a Hate Crime Law in Arkansas. Gov. Asa Hutchinson supports the measure, often noting that Arkansas is one of only three states that does not have hate crime legislation on its books.
“It’s something that we have been talking about for a long time in Arkansas, but we’ve never gotten across the finish line,” Sen. Hendren said.
Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families is a 43-year old statewide nonprofit that advances issues including equity, education, juvenile justice, tax reform, child health and welfare, and economic opportunity.
Editor’s note: KATV senior political reporter Marine Glisovic is the author of this report. KATV, a Little Rock-based television station, is a content partner with Talk Business & Politics.