Wednesday, July 02, 2014

TOP STORY >> Session finds funds

Leader senior staff writer

At 12:01 a.m., while most of us slept, lawmakers expected to reconvene, appropriate $6.2 million to help ease prison and jail overcrowding, to reduce the number of school employees eligible for paid health insurance at the expense of school bus drivers, other part-timers, and to prohibit put a temporary hold on state Lottery Commission plans to branch out into electronic monitor gambling.


The House and the Senate easily passed identical versions of those laws earlier in the session and lawmakers in both houses said they expected this special session would conclude quickly and smoothly over night.

“We’re going back at 12:01 a.m. to pass all the House bills,” Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) said Tuesday, “and they’ll pass all the Senate bills. Then we’ll go home.”

Because the House is in temporary quarters in the Old State House, they will have to vote by roll call, so that will take a little longer, she said. But, “the bills are agreed upon ahead of time,” she said.


Lawmakers were expected to transfer $6.2 million to the state Correction Department budget to open 604 additional beds around the state to help alleviate overcrowding in county jails caused, at least in part, by the 2,700 state inmates being held there.

Of particular importance to Pulaski County, the plan calls for the Corrections Department to take over the currently vacant 250-bed work-release center on the County Detention Center grounds at Little Rock. State correction officers will staff it at state expense.

That would open Pulaski County beds for prisoners from the county, Little Rock, North Little Rock, Jacksonville, Sherwood and Maumelle, according to Lt. Carl Minden, spokesman for the Pulaski County Detention Center.


The other 350 beds would be opened around the state.

For the second time in about two months, Pulaski County has closed its jail to all but violent offenders, Minden said, because it was overcrowded.

That closing was based on a morning headcount of 1,281, so the Pulaski County Regional Detention Center stopped accepting all but violent criminals at noon Tuesday.

The state took 20 prisoners from the county overnight, reducing the Pulaski County jail census to 1,261. It’s still expected to refill quickly, especially with a long Fourth of July weekend looming, Minden said.

The jail is funded and staffed for 1,210, Minden said.


Holladay, Lonoke Sheriff John Staley and White County Sheriff Ricky Shourd have joined others in the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association in calling for more money to open or construct new beds.

Holladay would like to open two more pods at the jail, each capable of housing 80 inmates, but that would cost $2 million a year and the money would have to come from the County and the Pulaski County cities for which it houses inmates, Minden explained.

The intralocal agreement that sets out the financial obligations of each of those towns and cities for the regional jail expires Dec. 31, and many, including Jacksonville Mayor Gary Fletcher, say the system isn’t fair and needs to be renegotiated.


“Eventually, we’re going to have to combine all the public funded health-care plans into one risk pool,” said state Rep. Jim Nickels (D-Sherwood). “That would include all state employees.”

He said he had been trying to make that change since he first arrived in the House six years ago. “There would be winners and losers, but just one plan,” Nickels said.

Of the Lottery Commission’s desire to add electronic monitor lottery games, Nickels said, “We’ve just kicked it down the road until March 2015. It’s Oaklawn and Southland racetracks against the lottery interests,” Nickels said, the kind of showdown Oaklawn usually wins.