Former Lt. Gov. Bill Halter has announced a plan to cover complete college tuition for students graduating from high school and meeting minimum standards.
Halter, a Democrat who unveiled the "Arkansas Promise" as his first policy announcement in his campaign for governor, said the initiative — mirrored after similar programs in El Dorado and Arkadelphia — can be accomplished without raising taxes.
Halter, who as lieutenant governor spearheaded the effort to create the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery, said increasing financial support for the state's students is an important step for Arkansas, which ranks 49th in the country in percentage of work force with a college degree. He said a "well-educated, well-trained workforce" will attract companies to the state, resulting in higher-paying jobs.
"This is a proposal that would make Arkansas the number one state in the country in terms of college affordability and accessibility," Halter said in a phone interview Monday morning. "It's something that pays off not only for the students and their families, but it pays off for the entire state."
Students would qualify for the scholarships if they graduate from high school with a 2.5 grade-point average and attend an in-state school. The level of the scholarship would be equal to the tuition of the highest-cost, four-year public university.
Halter said the money would come from the existing Lottery Scholarship, federal grants, additional private scholarships and charitable support. A 26-page plan released with his announcement puts the estimated annual cost in additional general revenue from the state at $50 million to $75 million. Halter called that a "minor expense compared to the benefits it will create."
In his proposal, Halter noted that Gov. Mike Beebe's reduction in the grocery tax has resulted in a decrease of about $120 million a year in general revenue.
He said he has "explicitly" ruled out a tax increase as a funding source.
"My analysis is a tax increase is not necessary to fund this," Halter said. "General revenue growth and cost-savings will be sufficient to fund this."
If general revenue growth didn't fully fund the program, Halter said he would look to cut from "lower return" state spending. He declined to give examples of where he'd seek the money.
"We're talking about a proposal that would go through after a gubernatorial election that's 18 months away," he said. "It will depend on the circumstances at the time."
Halter is the only announced Democratic candidate for governor, though others have acknowledged they are considering entering the race including former U.S. Rep. Mike Ross and former Highway Commissioner John Burkhalter. Republicans former U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson and businessman Curtis Coleman are also running.