A look back at Arkansas’ top achievements for kids

With the holidays coming to an end and a New Year beginning, it’s a good time to reflect on the many positive things Arkansas has done the last few years to help our most vulnerable children and families. We need to give credit where credit is due to our state legislature, Gov. Mike Beebe, state agency officials, other public officials and our many coalition partners for their work in making these happen.

As child advocates, our mission is to ensure that all children and families have the resources and opportunities they need to lead healthy and productive lives and realize their full potential. To this end, we spend much of our time working to identify problems and promoting research-based public policy solutions that improve the lives of Arkansas children and their families. A big part of our job is pushing the envelope, convincing policymakers and state agency officials to adopt changes and new policies (some of which involve spending the public’s money) to help Arkansas children and their families.

I took a couple of hours this morning to write up a list of 16 important (and positive) public policies that Arkansas has adopted since the beginning of 2007. This list is incomplete. I have no doubt missed things that deserve to be on the list. Note that I left off the list two ballot initiatives that were adopted by the voters in 2008-the adoption of a regressive lottery that hurts the poor and a ban against unmarried, cohabitating couples from being foster and adoptive parents. I believe both of these developments are bad public policy for children and families. That said; please give us your thoughts about other changes that should be on this list.

Expanded access to quality pre-k. High-quality early childhood education is one of the most effective strategies for closing the achievement gap for low-income and minority children. Annual funding for the Arkansas Better Chance program- Arkansas’s state funded quality pre-k for at-risk 3 and 4 year olds-was increased by $40 million. Since 2003, Arkansas has increased total annual funding for the ABC program by $100 million (Act 229 of 2007 session).

New funding for child welfare services to protect abused and neglected children. The DHS Division of Children and Family Services, the state agency responsible for protecting children from abuse and neglect and overseeing state foster care and adoption programs, finally saw significant funding increases. Act 1232 of 2007 increased the agency’s annual budget for fiscal years 2008 and 2009 by $8 million and $10 million above fiscal year 2007 levels. This was followed up by a $4 million increase for fiscal year 2010 during the 2009 legislative session (Act 1496). In prior years, this agency’s budget had been sorely neglected, and this helped contribute to a system in crisis that threatens the health and safety of our most vulnerable children. While the child welfare system is still woefully underfunded, these increases were a major step forward. The increases have supported major DCFS staffing changes and have helped hold caseworkers more accountable for their performance.

Increasing the tobacco tax to reduce smoking and fund a comprehensive health care initiative. The state cigarette tax was increased by 56 cents and changes were made in the way the state taxes smokeless tobacco products (Act 180 of 2009). Initial estimates of new revenue associated with the increase were set at nearly $86 million, but is now expected to bring in 91-93 percent of that amount. In addition to being a deterrent to teen smoking, the tax increase will help fund a comprehensive health initiative, including, among other things, expanded eligibility for ARKids First, creation of an Arkansas trauma system, funding for community health centers, coordinated school health initiatives, and funding for Medicaid substance abuse treatment for children and pregnant women.

Expanding ARKids First to cover more uninsured children. Act 435 of 2009 expanded eligibility for ARKids First-Arkansas’s health insurance program for uninsured children- to families with incomes up to 250 percent of the poverty line ($45,000 for a family of three). About 8,000 more children will be directly eligible under the program, while another 12,000 already eligible children are expected to enroll as a result of increased outreach efforts under the expansion. To date, the expansion is still in limbo pending federal approval of a change to Arkansas’s Medicaid waiver.

Reform of the children’s mental health system. Act 1593 of 2007 began the process of reform by implementing System of Care activities. The long-term goal of the effort is to ensure that children receive more appropriate and effective service through greater emphasis on community-based services and family involvement, better standards, and unbundling of services. The legislation also created a governor’s commission on children’s mental health services.

Increasing and modernizing the state severance tax on natural gas. Adopted during the special legislative session of 2008 after several decades of failed efforts to do so, Arkansas finally brought its state severance tax on natural gas in line with the rest of the nation (Acts 4 and 5 of 2008). While the new revenue does not directly go to social service or education programs serving children and families (the revenue goes to roads and infrastructure), it comes at a critical time and helps to relieve pressure on other parts of the state budget that do directly fund children and family programs. While some of us might argue the severance tax increases could have been higher, there is no denying that it took great political courage for our governor and state legislators to adopt the increases they did.

Increased funding for K-12 Education. After major increases in education during the middle part of the decade to meet Supreme Court mandates in the Lake View case, there was (and still is) a widespread concern that Arkansas will fall back to its old ways and fail to maintain adequate funding for education. The legislative sessions of 2007 and 2009 saw fairly reasonable increases in the state’s commitment to funding education. During the 2007 legislative session, general revenue funding for the Public School Fund was increased by $70 million in 2008 and $109 million in 2009 above base levels (Act 229). Under Act 272, state foundation funding was increased from $5,662 per ADM (average daily membership, a type of per-pupil measure) to $5,789 over the two years of the biennium. Enhanced per-pupil funding increased by $51 per pupil in fiscal year 2008 and $87 in fiscal year 2009 (Act 273). Given the tight economy, the 2009 session saw a smaller increase of $27.8 million in state general revenue funding for the Public School Fund (Act 1421). State foundation funding per ADM increased from $5,789 in fiscal year 2009 to $5,905 in fiscal year 2010 (a 2 percent percent increase), while enhanced funding increased by $35 per ADM.

New tax relief for low and middle income families. AACF has long documented how low- and middle-income families shoulder a disproportionate share of Arkansas’s state and local tax burden. Over the last two sessions, the state grocery tax has been cut from 6 cents to 2 cents (Act of 110 of 2007 and Act 436 of 2009). Act 142 of 2007 cut property taxes by $50 per homestead, while Act 195 of 2007 exempted or reduced state income taxes for families with incomes below to slightly above the poverty line. A technical flaw in the legislation prevents single parents with two or more children from receiving the full benefit of the change, but it was a good start nonetheless. Overall, these were positive first steps to improve fairness and support our most economically vulnerable families. Maybe when the economy turns around we can finally get a state earned income tax credit-proven in other states to be one of the best anti-poverty tools available.

A greater state level focus on fighting poverty. Act 722 of 2009 created a 22-member Legislative Taskforce on Reducing Poverty and Promoting Economic Opportunity. The taskforce must produce a final report by November 2010, complete with recommendations for reducing poverty. It’s about time Arkansas recognized and tackled the problem of poverty head on at the state level, instead of letting powerful, entrenched special interest groups state frame the debate to their benefit.

Adoption of a primary seat belt law. After years of failed efforts, Arkansas finally adopted a primary seat belt law that allows drivers to be pulled over for not wearing a seat belt (previously they could only be cited for it if pulled over for another reason such as expired tags). Primary seat belt laws have been proven to increase seat belt usage and decrease car fatalities. Passage of the bill (Act 308 of 2009) also paved the way for Arkansas to receive certain federal transportation dollars.

Strengthened safety laws to protect young drivers. A series of new laws will make the roadways safer for teen drivers (and the rest of us) and prevent accidental deaths and injuries. Act 394 of 2009 imposes a more stringent graduated driver’s license for new drivers, including placing limits on non-related passengers (one) and late night driving (11 p.m. to 4 a.m.). Act 181 of 2009 bans all drivers from text messaging while driving. Acts 197 and 247 of 2009 ban drivers under age 18 from using cell phones while driving, and require 18 o 21 year old drivers to use hands free devices.

Outlawing of Predatory Payday Lending. As a result of actions taken by the Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, predatory payday lenders have been outlawed. These lenders, who typically charged annual interest rates of 400 percent or more, preyed upon our most economically vulnerable families.

Greater access to child care for families leaving welfare and enrolled in higher education. Act 1485 requires the Transitional Employment Assistance (TEA) program to pay the child care expenses for qualified TEA recipients enrolled in a two-year college for both day and evening classes. Child care and education are essential to the long-term success of families attempting to leave welfare and move up the economic ladder.

Helping youths aging out of the foster care system. Act 391 of 2009 requires DHS to create a transitional plan for youth who will be turning 18 and aging out of the child welfare system without a permanent family. The plan must be created no later than the child’s 17th birthday, and at least provides some hope that more will be done to help prepare a foster child entering adulthood without the benefit of a permanent family.

The creation of Child Safety Centers, the purpose of which is to provide one stop locations for child abuse examinations/investigations for children who have been victims of sexual abuse or serious physical abuse (Act 703 of 2007). A 1 percent beer tax was also passed to help fund the centers (Act 869 of 2007).

Greater accountability in the child welfare system. DCFS now has to disclose more information when a child dies or nearly dies in its care and in similar situations when children are abused or neglected. More information has to be released while the investigation is pending and additional information has to be realized once an investigation is finalized (Acts 674 and 675 of 2009). DCFS must publicly disclose certain types of information within 72 hours of a report to the child hot line in cases of death or near death while a child is in their custody. This will help promote greater accountability in the state child welfare system and law enforcement in child abuse cases.