Gov. Sanders: Workforce heads meeting; tort reform, more tax cuts coming

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 1,348 views 

Arkansas Gov. Sarah Sanders said leaders of workforce-related agencies weren’t meeting with each other before she entered office, so she created the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet. She said agency leaders told her they focused on the areas under their own umbrella.

She also said lawmakers will continue chipping away at the state income tax, and that efforts at tort reform could gain more momentum, starting as early as the fiscal session next April.

Sanders made the comments at the Arkansas Trucking Association Conference Wednesday (May 17).

Sanders said during the transition process after her election, she asked workforce-related agency leaders how often they met to address the state’s worker shortage. She was surprised when they said they never met as a group.

“I said, ‘I don’t understand. You literally all work in the same administration. You’re all tapped with dealing with building a skilled, qualified workforce here in Arkansas, and you’ve never all sat down at a table together?’” she said.

In response, Sanders on Feb. 9 signed an executive order creating the Governor’s Workforce Cabinet. It includes the secretaries or their designees of the Departments of Commerce, Corrections, Education, Human Services, Labor and Licensing, and Veterans Affairs. She also appointed Mike Rogers, formerly of Tyson Foods, as chief workforce officer. He chairs the cabinet.

The cabinet is tasked with preparing a data-driven strategic plan by Oct. 1 and at her direction create working groups comprised of community and business leaders, educators, workforce development experts and the state’s chief data officer. She told the truckers that the state’s approach to workforce development must be a partnership between education, the private sector and government.

“For a long time, I’ve said we look at education in the wrong way,” she said. “We look at, at the end, what does this student know? Instead, we should be asking ourselves, what can this person do?”

She touted the recently passed LEARNS Act, which she called “the most comprehensive, aggressive education reform package I think anywhere in the country.” Among its provisions are the creation of “education freedom accounts” that allow families access to $7,000 in state school funds for non-public education options, and increasing the minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 while giving every public school teacher at least a $2,000 raise.

She said the law also creates a lifetime pathway by helping students start preparing to go into the workforce as early as the ninth grade.

The LEARNS Act has opposition. The Citizens for Public Education and Students, or CAPES, is working to place a citizen’s referendum on the ballot that would repeal the Act. Steve Grappe, CAPES executive director and chair of the Rural Caucus of Arkansas, has estimated that 70%-75% of those involved in CAPES are teachers and educators. Referring to the LEARNS Act, Grappe said in a previous interview “there’s a whole lot about this bill that we like,” including the teacher pay increase. Overall, however, he said, “We have the choice, and we get to run a citizens’ veto on this act because we don’t think that it’s constitutional or good for the future of Arkansas.”

In a response to a question about tort reform, Sanders said the issue is being discussed.

“It wasn’t something that became a big priority during this session, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it comes up even during our fiscal session next year,” she said.

The fiscal session will start in April because of next year’s presidential primary. The sessions are designed to focus on appropriations, but lawmakers can consider other issues with a two-thirds vote in both the House and Senate.

“There’s a lot of ongoing discussion,” she said. “I think it’s something that we certainly have to take a look at and engage and see what opportunities are in front of us for Arkansas.”

Sanders said the state must be competitive when it it comes to income taxes, especially considering two of its neighbors, Texas and Tennessee, don’t have an income tax. She said that while other types of tax cuts have support, the income tax, personal and corporate, is the best one on which to focus.

In April, Sanders signed into law a bill cutting the top individual tax rate from 4.9% to 4.7%, and the top corporate income tax rate from 5.3% to 5.1%. The cuts were projected to reduce taxes by $124 million a year.