Those days are gone

by Paul Holmes ([email protected]) 723 views 

In the days when the Arkansas General Assembly met in regular sessions only every other year, I was obligated by the news outlets that employed me to ask local legislators on what they and their colleagues would focus on in the upcoming 60-day session.

First, we’d have to get past the pleasantries. In jest, I’d remind them that some of their constituents wished the General Assembly would meet for two days every 60 years rather than 60 days every two years, and further, that it was no accident the sessions were held in odd years, with emphasis on the odd.

They would respond in kind, offering opinions about the sorry state of the Fourth Estate and wondering aloud what went into our thinking when we decided something was newsworthy.

That done, we’d get down to the real business of what legislators might be tasked to deal with in the 60-day session, though it was usually 60-plus after an extension or two. While the governor would have his priorities, many individual members also would have proposals on behalf of a state agency, group or association. One legislative veteran, now deceased, always told me the same thing: After all was said and done, lawmakers would take care of the needs of the state prisons and the schools and then whatever was left ultimately would be divided up among other needs.

Now, the General Assembly assembles every year, with so-called fiscal sessions convened in even-numbered years and the regular sessions still held in the odd years. In 2008, voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment calling for the annual sessions, with fiscal matters only to be considered in the even years, such as 2022.

It’s interesting to see that even though the times have changed, at least one of the basics got attention in this year’s fiscal session.

Take for example, one of the basics from the biennial General Assembly days: prisons. Gov. Asa Hutchinson gave his last “state of the state” address, including a call to appropriate money, perhaps $60 million to $100 million, from the expected state surplus to build a 498-bed expansion to the Department of Corrections’ North Central Unit at Calico Rock. Some two dozen protesters who chanted “No more cages” from the gallery were removed as lawmakers applauded Gov. Hutchinson in an apparent effort to drown out the protesters.

Some legislators said that while public safety is important, the entire criminal justice system needs to be examined to identify issues that lead to people being incarcerated. I believe I heard the voice of my late legislative friend saying essentially the same thing, but in fewer words. He said Arkansas should do a better job in the judicial system of separating those we’re just mad at from those we’re afraid of, reserving prison for the latter category.

The governor wants to use $10 million of the surplus to boost the starting pay of Arkansas State Police troopers from a little more than $42,000 annually to $54,000. His proposal boosts annual salaries to troopers who have earned higher ranks than trooper. He also asked for $10 million for grants to police agencies to buy equipment such as bullet-resistant vests and body cameras.

Hutchinson said during the speech on the House floor he wants the state also to use $45 million from the surplus to give one-time $5,000 salary supplements to all certified city and county police officers in the state. The money would reward and incentivize officers who protect Arkansans, their home and property, said Hutchinson.

Jonesboro Police Chief Rick Elliott said there is work underway on the salary schedule adopted a few years ago when the city council and the city departments worked together to increase base pay for officers and other city employees and the police department developed a salary schedule.

His agency has the third-largest municipal police department in the state in terms of number of sworn officers, Elliott said. The Jonesboro Police Department is authorized for 172 officers, Eliott said, but is eight officers short of its full complement. The city is in the process of hiring two certified officers with previous experience, he said.

In January, the department switched to a system by which patrol officers work 11-hour shifts, which he said provides more officers on the street at one time because of overlap in the beginning and ending of shifts and helps reduce overtime.

Jonesboro has found the 11-hour shift schedule has assisted in recruiting new officers, Elliott said. Though the department is one of the largest in the state in terms of sworn officers, that does not mean it is the best-paying. Elliott points to a 2021 Arkansas Municipal League study of police department salaries in the state which he said indicates that Jonesboro’s annual average salary for a patrol officer – an officer who has attained no higher rank – of $46,000 is nearly $10,000 below Rogers’ average salary of $54,936 and North Little Rock’s $54,900, though the three cities’ populations are virtually the same. In some of the state’s smallest communities, Elliott maintains, young officers with families could qualify for food stamps.

When the governor announced his plans for the surplus, he issued a challenge to local governments. He called for the cities and counties to “step up to the plate and do more.” Police funding, he said, should be a priority at every level.

There was a time when in some local governments the idea was to keep taxes low, even if that kept public employees’ salaries and the level of services low. Hutchinson has signaled that such a time has long passed.

Editor’s note: Paul Holmes is editor-at-large for Northeast Arkansas Talk Business & Politics. He can be reached at [email protected]. The opinions expressed are those of the author.