Even before the Arkansas General Assembly gavels into session, the anticipation at the state Capitol is palpable. As expected from the biennial occurrence, everyone is eager to hit the ground running. From Election Day on, we hear rumblings about what issues the upcoming session will address, including what legislation will be in the pipeline.
But the 2023 regular session was more noteworthy than usual. One day after convening, Arkansas swore in its 47th and first female governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders. Many residents saw the November election as a mere formality due to Sanders’ political lineage and her loyal Republican base. The session set the stage for her to quickly deliver on her campaign promises, including overhauling our state’s education system.
With only 59 days to prepare after her victory, Sanders’ transition team worked overtime to put a framework in place for her major legislative initiatives. And it’s paid off, with her administration and the legislature passing policies to advance her objectives. Simultaneously, the General Assembly has tackled other issues of interest, from unemployment compensation to the certification process for proposed ballot initiatives.
The 2023 regular session will be marked by progress in three key areas:
Education: From day one, Sanders’ Arkansas LEARNS plan dominated conversations at the state Capitol as other education-relation issues were pushed to the back burner. Once introduced, the 145-page LEARNS Act drew attention and, among certain circles, pushback. One of the most publicly discussed components of the law is its Educational Freedom Accounts. This voucher program, set to be phased in over three years, will provide Arkansas families up to 90 percent of the per-student public school funding rate for use on allowable education expenses, such as private-school tuition. Starting in the 2023-2024 school year, the LEARNS Act will also raise the minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000.
Teachers making above this minimum will receive a $2,000 raise with additional bonuses of up to $10,000 available to teachers for good performance or for serving in high-demand subject matters and geographic areas. A critical piece of the legislation that has not yet grabbed headlines is the law’s “dual-track” diploma. This provision requires high schools to offer ninth-grade students a “career-ready” pathway with studies aligned with “high-wage, high-growth jobs in Arkansas.” This will be crucial to Arkansas’ continued economic growth, particularly as we leverage our skilled workforce to recruit companies and bring high-paying jobs to our state.
Criminal justice reform: With the LEARNS Act now law, the legislature will soon move on to sentencing and prison reform. Over the last several years, the Arkansas Department of Corrections has repeatedly highlighted overcrowding at facilities across the state. The shortage has become so severe that certain areas have been forced to keep people in county jails until spaces in state units become available or, worse, let nonviolent, misdemeanor offenders walk. With an estimated inmate population of more than 19,000 by 2028, many elected officials have called for funding for additional maximum-security space.
During her campaign, Sanders said that Arkansas must “devote the necessary resources to increase prison capacity to allow for the retention of violent, repeat offenders and to reduce the backlog in our county jails.” Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester has indicated additional sentencing and prison reform bills will be filed, likely as a package, to increase the number of new prison beds in our state by as much as 3,000. These bills were expected to be filed the last week of March. Once introduced, Sanders and the Republican majority will likely shepherd the funding measures through the legislative process.
Tax cuts: Sanders ran on cutting our state’s income tax. In fact, before her inauguration, she pledged to “work on responsibly phasing out the state income tax to reward work — not government dependency.” This issue remains at the top of her agenda but is largely dependent on funding available after the passage of the LEARNS Act and the sentencing and prison reform legislative package.
Despite its slower start due to new administration appointments and newly elected members of the legislature, the General Assembly is moving full speed ahead. With potentially a few weeks remaining in the 2023 regular session, we can expect more bills to make their way to Sanders’ desk. There may even be a few surprises. Stay tuned.
Austin Grinder is an attorney and registered lobbyist for Mullenix & Associates, an Arkansas-based government relations and consulting firm marking 25 years in business. For more information, visit LobbyArkansas.com.