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Legislature Convenes 2023 Regular Session

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LITTLE ROCK –School choice, prison expansion and tax cuts are expected to be the highlights of the 2023 regular legislative session that convenes on Monday, January 9.

Also on the agenda will be legislation to improve the reading skills of elementary school students. Legislators will consider plans to better prepare workers with the job skills most in demand by Arkansas manufacturers. Industry spokesmen have said that companies would like to locate in Arkansas if they can hire enough skilled workers.

Legislators say that Arkansas would be more competitive with neighboring states if individual and corporate income tax rates were lowered further. In the past eight years the legislature has approved reductions in state income taxes that now save Arkansas taxpayers about $750 million a year.

The top rate for individual income taxes has gone down from seven percent to 4.9 percent and the top rate for corporate income taxes has gone down from 6.5 percent to 5.3 percent.

The state’s strong fiscal position has prompted debate about tax cuts, prison expansion and higher teacher salaries.

Even with the recent tax reductions, the state will end the current fiscal year with an estimated surplus of almost $600 million, and the governor’s proposed balanced budget for next fiscal year projects another surplus of $255 million. Also, the state has about $2.7 billion in various reserve funds.

The Senate and House Committees on Education have recommended raising teacher pay by $4,000 a year. The two bodies differ on how quickly to implement the higher salaries.

Proposals to expand prisons have not been finalized. Some call for building space for 1,000 inmates and other legislators prefer a more aggressive building plan.

More prison space for violent offenders would relieve pressure on county jails, which at times can house up to 2,000 state inmates because there are no available beds in state prison units. County sheriffs have told the legislature that violent offenders in county jails are a danger to staff and to people in jail on minor offenses.

Truth in sentencing is another public safety issue that will likely come before the Senate and House Judiciary Committees.

Now, when a jury sentences a convicted offender, that person can accumulate good time and be released on parole before the end of his sentence. Inmates out on parole have committed serious offenses, including murder. That has generated public support for longer sentences and stricter parole policies.

School choice can take several forms, such as more charter schools or more flexible policies that provide parents more options to home school their children. Legislation is expected that would create tax saving accounts for parents to help pay to send their children to a private or parochial school.

The pandemic affected students across the nation, and in Arkansas the impact has shown up in standardized test scores. However, legislators were beefing up literacy programs in elementary schools even before the pandemic. Expect a renewed effort to improve young children’s reading skills.

Lawmakers will be in session for at least 60 days, as mandated by the state Constitution, but more than likely it will last for about 90 days.

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