Friday, March 03, 2017

TOP STORY >> Free tuition for Guardsmen

Arkansas National Guard soldiers and airmen who are students at state-supported colleges and universities could soon have their tuition paid for thanks to passage of state Senate Bill 278 this week.

The bill awaits approval in the House and has been sent to its Education Committee.

Senate Bill 278, which was approved by a 34-0 vote, will improve the Guard’s readiness and secure future unit assignments.

“Arkansas has lost units to other states that provide more benefits, which means that fewer units are available in Arkansas to respond to natural disasters and other emergencies. The loss of Guard units has a negative impact on local economies. In 2016, an estimated $37.2 million was lost in the Arkansas economy due to the loss of Guard units,” according to the Senate Information Office, which made the announcement Friday.

In other education legislation, the state Senate and House passed HB 1426, which creates a new tuition grant program that will allow students to receive two years of tuition if they study in high-demand fields, such as computer science, technology or welding. Recipients must perform community service and commit to working in Arkansas for at least three years after receiving their degree. The grants will be available in the fall.

The Senate also passed SB136, a 55-page bill addressing criminal justice, prisons and sentencing laws. It authorizes the construction throughout the state of mental-health crisis stabilization units with 16 beds each.

The bill passed 27 to 4 and was sent to the House Judiciary Committee, which gave it a favorable recommendation. It awaits a vote by the full House.

The governor’s proposed budget calls for opening three units. Criminal justice experts say there is a need for as many as eight. Police officers will get some training in how to recognize mental-health issues and how to deal with people experiencing a mental health crisis. They will be taken to one of the stabilization centers instead of to jail, where treatment for mental health problems is lacking.

The governor signed Act 281, a Senate bill that makes Arkansas the first state to designate the Capitol grounds a site for a monument honoring Gold Star families. Since World War I, gold stars have traditionally designated the loss of an immediate family member during wartime.

The monument will be designed and constructed as recommended by the Hershel “Woody” Williams Medal of Honor Foundation.

Williams, who attended the bill signing, is the sole living recipient of the Medal of Honor from the battle of Iwo Jima in 1945. His foundation works to place Gold Star monuments across the county.

Both chambers passed HB1427, which will require political candidates to file campaign finance reports electronically and require the secretary of state to maintain those records on a searchable website.

Candidates who do not have access to the technology necessary could submit paper records throughout the election cycle. The new law takes effect Oct. 1.

The Senate passed SB362, phasing out a tax-credit program for manufacturers called InvestArk.

The bill gradually repeals the sales tax they pay on replacement and repair parts. It will save manufacturers about $12.6 million a year, according to the Senate Information Office.