Tuesday, April 17, 2012

TOP STORY >> Next House speaker sets agenda

Leader staff writer

Education will be the top priority at the state legislature, Rep. Darren Williams (D-Little Rock) said Tuesday.

Williams, an attorney, is the House speaker-elect for 2013. He spoke at the third annual joint meeting of the Cabot and Jacksonville chambers of commerce at the Jacksonville Community Center.

“Education is our number one priority,” he told the crowd of about 200. “Forty-six percent of our budget goes to education and in our last fiscal session we added about $56 million to the education total. Every dollar we spend in education is truly important.”

He said the state spends more than $6,000 per student per year. Add in the state lottery scholarships for students wanting to attend college—that’s $4,500 for 320 Pulaski County students and 240 Cabot-area students—which Williams said was all good news.

The bad news is that the state is spending $20,000 a year per inmate and the state’s prison system is jammed with around 16,000 prisoners.

“There is a relationship between a lack of education and prison time. We are one of the top five states in sending people to prison and for lengths 196 percent above the guidelines,” Williams explained.

“What we do in education will have a significant impact on our prison numbers,” he said. “What we do in education will have an important role in the prison numbers.”

He said he’s proud of his recent prison-reform bill that tackles the problem from a number of sides. “Financially, we can’t sustain what we were doing,” he warned.

Williams said Arkansans should be proud that the state has a balanced budget. “Yes, I get told that all states are supposed to have a balanced budget, but we are one of the few that actually do it,” he said.

He added that in this year’s 19-day fiscal session, legislators approved 287 financial bills and increased the overall state budget by 3.5 percent, but did not raise taxes.

“We’ve not raised taxes since 2004. Also last year 46 states had to cut services. We didn’t,” he pointed out.

The speaker-to-be added that shortfalls in Medicaid are looming. “The estimates are between $250 and $390 million, and that will have a significant impact on the budget.

The governor and others are looking at innovative ways to cut down the shortfall, and we have to look at changing our model—the way we handle costs and expenditures in Medicaid.”

Williams said the state is initiating pilot programs in six Medicaid areas to see if they’ll curb expenses without cutting services.

He took time to salute the military for its service and dedication and told everyone that Little Rock Air Force Base was not just a strong part of the community, but also a strong part of the state.

He also said state Representatives Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville) and Jim Nickels (D-Sherwood) were outstanding leaders and would play an active role in state leadership in the coming year.

That said, there is a slight chance that House leadership could change in January.

His peers, mostly Democrats, elected Williams in the last session, but after November’s election, Republicans could control the House.

The House has to reaffirm the Speaker choice in January.

“We’ve never had a change, but it is possible. But we are less about partisanship and more about what’s best for the people,” Williams told The Leader.

A change could be costly to the state because it might add days to the session, he said.

“Each day we are in session cost about $30,000 and to have someone in January to learn everything that I’m still learning would cause delays and disruptions,” he said.