Monday, January 22, 2007

TOP STORY >>Lawmakers are given committee assignments

Leader staff writer

Former Gov. Dale Bumpers said Friday that he welcomed Mike Beebe’s ascendancy to the governorship, calling him a fine and principled man. “I have known Gov. Beebe since three weeks after I began my first run for governor (in 1970),” said Bumpers, who was holding forth in spirited conversation with Hendrix College political scientist Jay Barth at Community Bakery in Little Rock. “I put him on the University of Arkansas Board when he was 27.”

Bumpers, who also represented Arkansas in the U.S. Senate for 24 years, is associated now with a Washington law firm, but he said he was grateful that Beebe had been elected governor. “He has one of the finest sets of principles and values of anyone I’ve been associated with,” he said. Meanwhile, area legislators have received committee assignments, including chairmanships, and Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, seems to have bitten off the biggest portion—a chairmanship and two vice chairmanships. Glover is chairman of the legislative facilities committee, vice chair of the legislative joint auditing committee and vice chair of the Senate revenue and tax committee.

State Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Search, is vice chairman of the Senate performance review committee. In the Arkansas House, State Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, who lost the battle to be House speaker to state Rep. Benny Petrus, D-Stuttgart, was assigned the chairmanship of the special-language subcommittee of the Joint Budget Committee. Petrus reportedly appointed state Rep. Lenville Evans, D-Lonoke, as chairman of a House management subcommittee, although that’s not yet mentioned on Evans’ House webpage. He supported Petrus in his speaker’s race last year.

State Rep. Sandra Prater, D-Jacksonville, a nurse who had been mentioned for a chairmanship of the State Public Health Committee, learned Thursday that instead, she would chair the forestry subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee.
State Rep. Jeff Wood, D-Sherwood, is new chairman of the House Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.
State Rep. Susan Schulte, R-Cabot, is chairman of the Joint Budget Committee peer review subcommittee, according to her House webpage. State Rep. Mark Pate, D-Bald Knob, is vice chairman of the House Judiciary Committee and chairman of that committee’s corrections and criminal law subcommittee.

Prater and Bond are cosponsoring a bill promoted by AARP that would require the counseling of senior citizens and their families regarding available alternatives to nursing homes, Prater said. An assessment would be required for anyone going into Medicaid skilled nursing under the Department of Long-Term Care to explain that assisted living and Medicaid also can pay for home-based services.

Prater and Bond said they expected stiff, organized opposition for the nursing home industry. An AARP survey shows that 90 percent of elderly requiring care would prefer to stay at home. “Let the money follow the patient,” Prater said. Prater said she would continue her battle for the creation of a traumatic brain injury commission and also for a centralized drug testing registry, so a person who failed a drug test for one position wouldn’t be able to get a position elsewhere in the state.
Asked about published differences in the priorities of Gov. Mike Beebe and Petrus, Bond said Petrus might just want to do some horse-trading.

“There is some positioning by everyone to make sure that their priorities are not overlooked,” said Bond. Among Beebe’s campaign promises was one to phase out the tax on groceries, a position for which the new House speaker has not expressed much enthusiasm. Beebe introduced his budget this week. Specifically, the governor is calling for a $4.36 billion budget for fiscal 2008, which begins this July 1, and a budget of $4.54 billion for the second year of the biennium. The two-year plan recommends:

A 10 percent increase in funding for higher education, or $157 million. $202 million in new money for public schools, not including whatever amount lawmakers put toward court-mandated improvements to school facilities. $117 million in new money for health and human services.

$45 million in new money to the Department of Correction, in part to add beds at the Women’s Unit and to open a special-needs facility at the Malvern prison. The Department of Community Corrections would get $29 million extra over two years, in part to hire more probation officers. $14 million in new money to the State Police, partly to hire new troopers.

Beebe said this week he would seek to take half the tax off groceries to the tune of about $90.8 million from general funds this year and another $83.6 million next year, according to Matt DeCample, his spokesman. Bond said he feared that many Arkansans didn’t understand that money from the $800 million surplus could not be used for continuing expenses, but for one-time projects.

“A lot of things people want to do are continuing costs,” he said. Petrus reportedly has said he might be more interested in some sort of tax rebate to the state’s poorest residents. Petrus may have interest in other bills to promote bio fuels and biodiesel, important to farmers including those in his home district. As for Beebe’s new administration, “The honeymoon is still on,” said Bond. “There’s a lot of energy. There is a different feel.”

Bond said he was optimistic that “We’re going to have a good session. He said the questions of consolidation and also adequate education and facilities have been resolved. “The pressure on any one issue is not as strong,” he said.
Now there are a lot of issues that deserve attention. “My personal interest, I want to make sure there’s a lot for school facilities and also to adjust access to higher education as tuition increases,” Bond said. “We need to get more kids through college.”