FAYETTEVILLE -- Money for roads and schools became two of the big battles for Northwest Arkansas' legislative delegation in the recently concluded session.
More state money for highways was a long-term goal. A battle to keep school facilities funding for high-growth districts was a pop-up issue.
Area legislators claim other victories such as laws allowing more of the region's immigrant children to become certified nurses and to pay in-state tuition at colleges and universities.
Likewise, tax changes to improve business competitiveness will help this area because Northwest Arkansas is the state's center for business growth, lawmakers said.
School facility funding
Proposed changes to how the state pays for school facilities were tempered at almost the last minute of the legislative session, said Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville. He referred to Senate Bill 535, which received final passage April 10, the last business day of the legislative session. The measure is now Act 1080.
"The original version of the bill would have hurt Bentonville in particular," Dotson said. That version took out provisions of the law giving extra state money to districts rapidly growing.
The act includes the wealth of a district's population in deciding how much facilities assistance it can get. The provision hit Bentonville particularly hard, Dotson said.
Bentonville school Superintendent Debbie Jones estimated Wednesday state assistance for building a new elementary in her district would have dropped from $4 million of a typical $23 million construction project to almost nothing under the bill.
"I would not go as far as to say it would have been devastating, but it would have critically hurt our budget," Jones said.
"We've built 11 new buildings in 13 years," she said. "Clearly it was going to hurt."
Sen. Lance Eads, R-Springdale, voted for the original version of the bill. He said Bentonville was one of the only districts statewide that would have lost money under the original bill. Other districts in the state are unable to raise money locally for needed construction, he said.
An amendment adopted in the House restored money to fast-growing districts if they maintain a greater-than 4 percent growth rate for the preceding two years. The compromise resulted from some very intense negotiation among legislators, according to both Dotson and Senate President Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs. The bill was amended April 3 in the House Education Committee before going to the full House for a vote.
The Senate approved the House amendment 28 to 4.
"We spent an hour and a half in the back room from where the Education Committee was meeting getting it all hammered out with facilities managers from various school districts, getting it all nailed down," Dotson said. "It was amended at literally the last minute."
In another school-related development, the Legislature moved the date for party primaries to March from May in presidential election years. School elections must take place during either primary or general election dates. If the district's election is on the primary date, it must move to March as well, according to the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.
Highways and taxes
Legislators interviewed from Benton and Washington counties each listed the state's $300 million highway plan as particularly important to the region. Voters must approve much of the package.
"The highway plan is probably the best news Northwest Arkansas got out of the session," Hendren said.
More money for highways will be a major boon for the region, said Rep. Megan Godfrey, D-Springdale.
"Whether you're a driver for a business or just trying to get your kids to school, this was needed," she said.
Eads, who works for the Springdale Chamber of Commerce, said more money for roads had been a priority of the Northwest delegation since before he became a member of it.
One of the main things is there will now be a consistent source of money, assuming voters approve the plan, Eads said. The Legislature approved an increase in fuel taxes, but a proposed half-cent state sales tax increase requires voter approval.
Both Godfrey and Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, were critical of the governor's income tax cut.
"The cut reduced taxes for the 1 percent with the highest income," Clowney said. "An earned income tax credit would have cut taxes for 10 percent of taxpayers."
The Legislature also passed a series of changes to taxes on businesses. The revenue to be lost in Act 822 by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, will be offset by collecting sales taxes due on internet sales from out of state, supporters said. The act reduces the state's top corporate income tax rate from 6.5 percent to 6.2 percent for income exceeding $100,000 for tax years starting on or after Jan. 1, 2021. The corporate income tax cuts would reduce revenue by $9.8 million in fiscal 2021, $29.5 million in 2022 and $39.3 million in 2023 and beyond.
There are other changes. "Your readers' eyes will glaze over if we get into the weeds of business tax calculations, but this is meat and potatoes stuff for businesses," Dotson said of the bill's other provisions, including extension of the net operating loss carry-forward period from five to eight years for losses occurring in the tax year starting Jan. 1, 2020, and to 10 years for losses in tax years beginning on or after Jan. 1, 2021. That is projected to reduce state revenue in 2026 by $7.8 million and eventually $70 million in 2032.
"I know tax changes are not exciting, but the tax reform packages passed will be a big advantage to the state's businesses," said Hendren, president of a plastics company.
Legislation that passed important to the region included granting in-state college tuition for students graduating from their local high schools and clearing the way for nursing school graduates who are immigrants to receive licenses legislators interviewed said. The region has a large number of children of immigrants who were denied in-state tuition or a license to practice nursing.
"It would have been a fight worth fighting, but it really wasn't that much of a fight," Godfrey, who sponsored the bill, said of Act 837 to grant nursing licenses to qualified nursing school students who are recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a federal program for immigrants who were brought into the United States as children by parents who lack legal resident status.
Godfrey was unsure how many students would immediately benefit but said she expects more students will enter nursing programs now that a license is obtainable.
Act 844 by Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, grants in-state tuition rates for state colleges and universities to people in several groups, such as Asian children who came to the country with their parents who had work visas; those who are Marshallese; and those who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children but are protected under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy.
That will be an enormous help to those students said Clowney, who is a professor at the University of Arkansas. Out-of-state tuition and fees add up to about $25,000 a year versus $8,000 to $9,000 for in-state students at the university, according to figures given during debate on the bill.
NW News on 04/21/2019
Print Headline: Roads, schools, students benefit from session, lawmakers say