Our state government is responsible for making Arkansas a place where every child has the chance to thrive, and every family has the chance to prosper. To fulfill this mission, Arkansas requires a robust state budget.
Our Legislature is reportedly meeting next week for a special session to reduce corporate and personal income taxes again this year. We do not yet know the price tag for this proposal.
In April, the Legislature reduced individual income taxes by $115 million a year and corporate income taxes by $24 million a year. That means that even if the upcoming tax cut bill does not pass, our state will collect $139 million less each year.
Several states now have surpluses thanks to high levels of federal aid given during the pandemic, and states' economies are faring better than expected. In Arkansas, our surplus has led many to conclude that it is time for additional cuts and potentially doing away with income tax all together. However, this raises a number of questions about how all Arkansans are faring right now.
Can we say that all our families are well-fed? That all our children are well-educated and living in safe, stable housing? That we drive down nicely paved roads, and everyone can get the health care they need when they need it? Can we say that individuals in need of state help can receive services quickly?
Arkansas is not there. The 2023 KIDS COUNT Data Book® ranked Arkansas 43rd in overall child well-being. One in five of our children are living in poverty. More than half of Arkansas' 3- and 4-year-olds aren't enrolled in early childhood education. We continue to see news stories about troubles in our foster-care system.
Arkansas' state employees are responsible for promptly and efficiently delivering state-provided services. State employees investigate child maltreatment and care for foster children. They provide direct services and care to Arkansans with developmental disabilities. They determine Medicaid eligibility and so much more.
But the current state hiring freeze means many government job openings are going unfilled. As a result, several state employees are being asked to do the work of two or three people. There is an immediate need to address state employee pay and to fill these important roles. But this cannot occur without an ongoing financial commitment to the people who keep our government functioning.
Also unfolding in real time is "the largest overhaul of the state's education system in Arkansas history." Gov. Sarah Sanders' hallmark legislation, the LEARNS Act, is estimated to cost $297.5 million in the first year and to increase in the second year. But we don't actually know what the LEARNS Act will cost our state, and we will not for a while as the state is just beginning to implement this new law.
During the General Assembly earlier this year, there were many bills that were not even considered because of concerns about costs. There were proposals that could have helped improve access to and the quality of our early child-care system, which we know is critical to getting workers to work. There were bills that could have helped address the rising costs of diapers and formula. Or made wheelchair-accessible vehicles more attainable for people with mobility issues. We could have expanded Medicaid coverage for new moms to address our state's alarming maternal mortality rate.
Other investments that we know we need to make include, but are definitely not limited to:
Expanding broadband access
Addressing food deserts and related hunger issues
Broadening access to substance abuse services
Expanding community-based programs for youth
Meeting the increasing need for mental health services
Providing health insurance for uninsured children
The state budget is a reflection of our values. If we want our communities to thrive, our government must take a more active role in making the economy stronger for every Arkansan. To do that, we need a well-funded state budget. Before we look to pass another tax cut, let's take a hard look at our state and its needs and determine if we can truly say that we are meeting and addressing all its needs.
Keesa Smith is executive director of Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families.