The 2017 Legislative Session: What it Means for Children and Families

We want to thank Governor Hutchinson, members of the General Assembly, and our partners for their hard work this legislative session on issues of critical importance to Arkansas’s children and families. In the session that wrapped up Monday, we made progress in some areas, but there is much more work to do.

The legislature did take some positive steps that should improve the lives of Arkansas children and families. Some of the highlights include:

  • a paid maternity leave bill for state employees;
  • a student discipline bill that will help keep students in grades K-5 in the classroom so they can learn;
  • a resolution to provide health care coverage for Marshallese and other legally residing children;
  • legislation to improve reading proficiency for our youngest children;
  • eliminating the sentence of life without parole for juveniles committing certain categories of violent offenses;
  • continuing Arkansas Works, the state’s Medicaid expansion, to provide health care coverage for over 300,000 low-income adults;
  • and $50 million in low-income tax relief for families making less than $21,000 (through lower tax rates, not an Earned Income Tax Credit).

State funding for services impacting children and families was a mixed bag during the session. On a positive note, the Division of Child and Family Services will receive an additional $27 million in much-needed funding for services for abused and neglected children. Medicaid will receive $75 million in new general revenue (and another $90 million in carryover funding). The state’s high quality pre-K program—Arkansas Better Chance—will receive $3 million in new funding, its first permanent increase since fiscal year 2008, but far short of what is needed to maintain quality or access at nationally recognized levels. Unfortunately, the Positive Youth Development Program Act (PYD), which passed in 2011 as a way to fund high-quality after-school and summer programs, did not get funded this session. However, $4.3 million in school poverty funds* were set aside to help fund pre-K, after-school, and tutoring programs for school districts.

But not all the news coming from the session for children and families is good. The legislature did nothing to fix the long-term funding crisis for highways and roads, which must be addressed if the state is to grow and prosper. Funding for public education also did not fare well. K-12 education received a paltry 1 percent increase, compared to the 2 percent increase that legislative analysts recommended as an adequate funding level to maintain the status quo. The future revenue situation and the state budget are looking very shaky. This should come as no surprise. The tax cuts passed in 2013 and 2015 took $242 million out of the state budget, a situation made worse by the $65 million in tax cuts passed this session. Recent revenue reports suggest that the revenue forecast for Fiscal 2018—upon which next year’s budget is based—is showing signs of weakness and might not hold.

The Fiscal 2018 general revenue budget adopted by the legislature will increase spending by $163 million, or 3 percent, compared to the current fiscal year. However, most of the new funding increase will be in category “B” not category “A,” so if the current revenue forecast does not hold—as many legislative insiders predict—it could mean instant cuts or another year of flat funding (which itself is a cut in real terms), for programs serving children and families. Unless steps are taken to improve the current revenue situation, such as passing legislation to promote greater collection of online sales taxes by out-of-state retailers without a physical presence in the state, Arkansas’s future revenue outlook will only get worse. This is unlikely to happen anytime soon, given the passage of legislation to create a legislative task force whose primary goal will be to find more ways to cut taxes, presumably for the rich.

Finally, this session saw an acceleration of several disturbing trends begun in previous sessions. One is the continuing attack on poor and working families. Numerous bills were introduced this session to either reduce benefits or make it more difficult for working/low-income families to access social safety net programs that are so important to child and family well-being. Although most of these bills did not pass, several did and will impact important safety net programs, including TANF (the state’s welfare program), Unemployment Insurance, and SNAP (formerly known as Food Stamps). In contrast, other good bills that would have improved tenants’ rights for renters and helped stop wage theft for working families failed this session.

The other trend was the continuing attack on public education, at least by some elements in the legislature. Not only was public education inadequately funded, but several constitutional amendments were proposed that would have usurped the ability of state courts to mandate policy changes or funding increases in future lawsuits brought against the state. Fortunately, those proposed amendments did not pass. The legislature also took steps this session to expand privatization and school choice at the expense of traditional public schools. Vouchers for special needs children were expanded and a new voucher program for foster children was created. Only a major lobbying effort prevented the adoption of a so-called “pilot” voucher program for other students that would have opened the door for expanded voucher systems in future years. Finally, the legislature defeated good bills that would have improved accountability and transparency for the state’s growing charter school system.

In the coming weeks, AACF will release a new analysis and hold several post-legislative conferences to educate Arkansans about what happened during this legislative session and what it means for children and families. Stay tuned.

*See page 99 of document.