Senate President Hester: Legislature will ‘work to find the money’ for education, prisons

by Talk Business & Politics staff ([email protected]) 2,576 views 

Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs.

Senate President Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, said if the omnibus education reforms championed by Gov. Sarah Sanders exceed her estimated $300 million price tag, lawmakers will find the money to implement the plan and not scale back the proposal.

Hester, who appeared on this weekend’s Capitol View TV program, said the education changes are priority one for the governor and this legislature.

“I think we would work to find the money. We’re just committed. You have to say, as a legislature, ‘are we committed to our teachers and our students?’ And the answer is yes. All 135 of us are committed to teachers and students. So if it costs a little bit more money, we’re going to find it,” Hester said.

Sanders’ LEARNS plan includes:

  • A minimum starting teacher salary of $50,000. That will take Arkansas from the bottom 10 to the top 5 in the country.
  • Pay raises to $50,000 for those teachers making less than that amount.
  • The potential for $10,000 bonuses for teachers who excel.
  • Forgiveness for student loan debt for teachers who locate in high-need areas of Arkansas.
  • A repeal of the Teacher Fair Dismissal Act.
  • 120 literacy coaches who would be deployed across Arkansas to help kids improve their reading success.
  • K-3 students struggling with reading would also be afforded $500 per year for supplemental education services.
  • Her voucher system for allowing public school funds to follow students to other choices would be called “education freedom accounts.”
  • The school choice plan will be phased in over three years starting with “at-risk families first” and would be universal to all students in Arkansas by Year 3.

Hester expects the LEARNS bill to be filed as early as Monday (Feb. 20) and considered in Senate Education Committee this coming Wednesday.

The Senate leader also said lawmakers will find money to build at least 3,000 new prison beds and to fund ongoing prison operations and sentencing reforms that could stretch into the hundreds of millions of dollars.

He expects a package of sentencing and prison reform bills to come after the education plan begins to move through the legislature. They will come as a package of bills – not in an omnibus measure – and they are likely to be filed in batches, not all at once.

Another development this past week is expected to ease tensions for getting a 75% threshold in both chambers to fund the state’s often-controversial Medicaid expansion program, now known as AR HOME.

Hester, who has voted against the Medicaid expansion funding in the past, said there is widespread support for Gov. Sanders’ push for a new work requirement for able-bodied Medicaid recipients.

Sanders proposed this week a new work requirement for Medicaid expansion recipients, but a waiver must be approved by the Biden administration to allow it. Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson secured a waiver for a work requirement from the Trump administration, but it was struck down in federal court. The Biden administration reversed the waiver approval.

The latest attempt seeks to push recipients to find work, gain more education, or volunteer time or else they will be moved into regular Medicaid, which offers fewer benefits than the expansion program. Hutchinson’s effort including losing health coverage altogether for non-participants.

Hester said the Medicaid expansion program, which has been around for a decade in some form as the private option or Arkansas Works, is now implemented and not funding it would have to be a “much bigger discussion, not an afterthought.”

“I think clearly it [the work requirement] does make it easier, 75%. I don’t think we’re going to have trouble getting it done this time, particularly with the work requirement. It’s not too much of an effort to ask that people are trying to work if they’re going to get government healthcare,” he said.

You can watch Sen. Hester’s full interview in the video below.