Highway Robbery bill still hurts services for kids

Highway Robbery bill still hurts services for kids

This Highway Robbery Bill – HB 1418 – is akin to robbing Peter to Pay Paul. It presents a false choice between funding highways or funding other critical services for children and families. This is a “choice” that we don’t have to make. We certainly do not need to make this “choice” mere months after voters approved more than a billion dollars in new highway spending, financed by a sales tax that hits everyone in the state.

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The Highway Robbery Bill, combined with $100 to $150 million in tax cuts that could also pass this session, will devastate programs that impact children and families in Arkansas. The Department of Finance and Administration expects HB 1418 to take $1.7 BILLION away from services all Arkansans need over the next 10 years. Together Highway Robbery and the proposed tax cuts for corporations and wealthy Arkansans represent a “perfect storm” that would spell disaster for future funding of education, health care, public safety, and services for vulnerable children and families. This fundamentally changes the funding base for the state budget, and it’s all done in the guise of “economic development” while willfully ignoring the number one factor that determines state economic development or business location decisions: a well-trained and educated workforce.

Transparency appears to be lacking with the Highway Robbery Bill, too. This asks taxpayers to send their money to the Highway Department without them having to justify the expense. HB 1418 subverts the appropriations process entirely. If the Highway Department needs additional funds, they should justify the request to the legislature just like every other department. That’s especially true after they just received approval in November for $1.8 BILLION in taxpayer-supported bonds.

Despite amendments designed to protect K-12 adequacy funding, public schools would still take a huge hit under this bill. The Highway Robbery bill puts Arkansas’s high-quality, nationally recognized pre-k program at risk. The Arkansas Better Chance Program has changed the lives of countless children and parents. HB 1418 leaves the ABC program completely exposed for future cuts, which would have an immediate and irreversible impact on the children and families that currently use child care services – in addition to the communities made better by ABC.

Other services at risk include higher education, public health, child welfare, juvenile justice, human services, and corrections. Highway Robbery forces all of these programs to take an even bigger hit with no means to recover. Due to the Great Recession, a number of state agencies have been relatively flat funded the last three or four years. While programs such as K-12 adequacy and Medicaid have received regular increases, other programs like pre-k, child welfare, juvenile justice, and others have not. These programs are now underfunded, and this bill would make it impossible for them to ever catch up to where they should be.

While highways are certainly important to economic development, a well-trained and well-educated workforce is even more important. Access to a well-trained workforce is at the top of the list of nearly every study on factors related to state economic development or business location decisions.

On numerous occasions, the state chamber has talked about how jobs are currently going unfilled in Arkansas because we do not have the trained workers to fill them. This bill would only undermine the educational progress we have made over the last 10 years and would recklessly stifle our ability to educate our workforce in order to meet the changing needs of employers.

Jobs in education, health care, corrections, and child welfare will almost certainly be lost as a result of the Highway Robbery Bill. Any jobs created as a result of new highway spending – a dubious claim at best – would be lost thanks to reductions in other community services. The jobs lost because of the Highway Robbery Bill are often jobs that prepare our citizens to be part of the workforce or serve our most vulnerable children and families.

Just as the costs for our own households and companies in the private sector increase each year, the costs of serving the public also increase. Sending money to highways at the expense of childcare, Pre-K, and child welfare takes money out of the future funding base. As a result, our ability to keep these programs and services in the future diminishes.