Tuesday, January 06, 2009

TOP STORY > >Terms end for many

Leader senior staff writer

With big issues like implementing the state lottery facing the 87th General Assembly when it convenes Monday, local state representatives will all be rookies.

Term limits have wiped out 30 years of experience and institutional memory and will deprive area residents of the leadership provided by state representatives Will Bond, Sandra Prater and Jeff Wood in the Jacksonville, Sherwood and North Little Rock areas.

Also termed out are Susan Schulte of Cabot and Lenville Evans of Lonoke.

Evans has said he may run to succeed state Sen. Bobby Glover when Glover is forced out by term limits in two years.

Prater says she’s interested in succeeding state Sen. John Paul Capps, who also is serving the last two years of his final term.

Bond seems disinclined, for now at least.

The members of the next General Assembly face many broad statewide issues, perhaps none more important than figuring out how to implement the new state lottery to make sure the money—Bond estimates $60 million to $70 million a year—will be spent to get kids and adults into or back into colleges and vocational technical school—“and catapults us into a more educated workforce with more college degrees,” he said. “It’s important to get the lottery right.”

Arkansans passed Lt. Gov. Bill Halter’s constitutional amendment allowing a lottery with 63 percent of the vote.

The Economist magazine reports that Arkansas is last among states in the number of college degrees per capita and ahead of only West Virginia in income per family.

Bond said an uncertain economy would challenge legislators to create the mandated balanced budget.

“Any time you don’t have decent growth you have to make some tough choices,” Bond said.

Gov. Mike Beebe, who takes the lead in the budget process, has proposed cutting another one-cent from the remaining three-cent state sales tax on groceries.

“The challenge is still there to get the school situation in Jacksonville straightened out,” Bond said. “Despite all the hard work by a lot of people we haven’t fixed it yet.

“Still I think we’ll have our own district in the next 12 to 24 months, but it’s going to take some more work,” he predicted.

Bond championed state involvement in ending the expensive school-desegregation agreement binding Pulaski County Special School District, North Little Rock School District and Little Rock School District during his three two-year terms. He also authored language and legislation that would encourage a stand-alone Jacksonville/north Pulaski school district, which is probably dependent upon the release of all three districts from the agreement.

Bond said the state still hadn’t come to grips with how to rehabilitate lawbreakers. “We’re still holding too many in prison.” He said the legislature needs to fund more transitional housing. “We need follow-through.”

He said that at the end of their sentences, inmates are given “$100 and a bus ticket, and like the Motel 6, ‘We’ll leave a light on for you.’ The recidivism rate is in excess of 50 percent.”

Among his disappointments, the legislature failed to pass a bill changing term limits to 12 years for each house. The bill would have instituted the “cup-of-coffee” provision prohibiting legislators from accepting more than a cup of coffee from a lobbyist.

Bond said it would have cleaned up the appearance of impropriety, and “we would have gotten much better policy.” Bond sponsored the bill.

Bond said he had great faith in his replacement, fellow Democrat Mark Perry of Jacksonville.

Prater, a Democrat who represented parts of north Pulaski County and North Little Rock, is a nurse with a six-year history of working on health issues in the House.

Area Republicans turned out in large numbers to support presidential candidate John McCain and to keep unmarried couples, including gays, from being foster parents, which helped Republican Jane English succeed termed-out Prater.

Prater says she’s proud of the bill she sponsored and passed requiring additional training for certified nurses’ assistants in the area of Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. The nursing assistant who beat a nursing home patient, perhaps with brass knuckles, spurred Prater to action.

“We may not always get what we want, (but) I’ve been able to be a voice for healthcare issues, keeping healthcare out front,” she said, “and also be a voice for nurses in the state.”

She successfully promoted vision screening for public school children, passing a law that revealed that many children are having vision problems that might not otherwise have been caught.

Prater also authored a bill creating a traumatic-brain-injury commission, to which Gov. Mike Beebe appointed her. She says many returning war veterans have such injuries and their friends and families need some assistance helping them.

She said she was disappointed that Beebe’s budget didn’t include any money for helping those with traumatic brain injuries.

Implementing the lottery and dealing with harsh economic times will be two of the main challenges for this legislature, she said. “Two years ago we had almost a billion-dollar surplus. This time they’ll have to look (carefully) and make sure they aren’t cutting necessary services.”

State Rep. Jeff Wood, a Sher-wood Democrat, recently finished a 17-month active-military duty stint, much of it in Iraq as a judge advocate general. Many of the bills he sponsored or wrote were to help members of the military.

First he helped pass a bill to raise the state tax exemption for enlisted men and women, including activated National Guard, from $6,000 a year to $9,000. Then last session, legislators extended the same courtesy to officers.

He sponsored a law that judges could only temporarily change custody agreements while a soldier is deployed. “The first time the 39th Infantry Brigade deployed, ex-spouses were getting custody changed while they were gone. Now a lot of judges make the order expire upon the return of the deployed parent.

“I know of 10 soldiers that benefited,” he added.

Those who served in Iraq can get their vehicle license free for life.

He said the new legislature might face raising the tobacco tax and tying the proceeds to a lot of worthwhile causes, but that it’s always difficult to get a tax increase of any kind.

Taking Woods’ place is Sherwood attorney Jim Nickels, a Democrat.

Evans, the Lonoke-area state representative, says the economic crisis will be the big issue. “We don’t know where that’s going,” he said. “That would be my main concern. I don’t think there’s anything out there too controversial.”

Evans said he was proud of the legislature for raising money to address the educational crisis. “By no means did we fix it, and
I’m not fond of a tax increase, but we got the ball rolling and out from under the court on the school issue.”

Walls McCrary of Lonoke, the former retailer and city treasurer, will succeed Evans.

His advice to McCrary?

“Listen to his constituents and their needs, return their calls and do what he can to help them. That’s what we’re here for, to serve the people,” Evans said.

“The main thing is not the bills you present,” said Evans, “it’s the bills that are not so good. The main thing is your voting record.”

“I just felt honored to be there and to be part of our working government,” said Susan Schulte, a Cabot real estate appraiser and the only Republican in the outgoing group. “I’m just concerned for our state and nation because of the economy.”

Davy Carter, also a Republican, will replace Schulte in the House. “Davy struck me as a very sharp young man,” Schulte said.

She advised him to “take things slow, listen, learn and ask a lot of questions before making decisions.”