Governor wants more tax relief, school safety measures

Dr. Cheryl May, chair of the Arkansas School Safety Commission and director of the Criminal Justice Institute, with Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson during last week’s news conference.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday he wants to hold a special legislative session to create a school safety grant program and to provide additional tax relief.

During a news conference, the governor said he has been talking to legislators about providing some form of relief to compensate for rising gasoline and food prices.

“Now, the discussions that we had are based upon the best form of tax relief that we can enact that would help Arkansans,” Hutchinson said. “I want to listen to more members of the General Assembly, and we want to arrive at a consensus. But that is what I consider an important need that we have and we had that discussion with leadership today.”

As for school safety, Hutchinson said he envisions creating a $50 million grant program from state surplus funds to help school districts purchase additional equipment to harden access to campuses.

“Right now, parents are certainly worried or concerned, and asking themselves the questions as to whether my child can safely go to school,” the governor said. “And school board members and school districts are reviewing their security plans and safety plans and seeing how it can be tightened.”

Hutchinson claimed his proposal for the grant program is not in response to the May 24 school shooting in Uvalde, Texas, but an effort to update security measures the Legislature approved in 2019.

Nineteen children and two teachers died in the attack at Robb Elementary School, the deadliest school shooting in nearly a decade. Seventeen more were injured.

Hutchinson said Arkansas was actually ahead of other states in providing safe schools.

“It is the constitutional responsibility of the State of Arkansas to ensure that we have a quality school system, but that we also have a safe school system,” Hutchinson said.

Among the measures adopted in 2019 were provisions requiring school counselors to spend more time directly speaking to students, and legislation to allow school districts to establish their own institutional police departments,” said Dr. Cheryl May, director of the state’s School Safety Center and also director of the Criminal Justice Institute.

In 2021, lawmakers enacted measures focusing on comprehensive school safety audits, emergency operation plans, lockdown drills, first aid training and training requirements for school resource officers, she said.

Hutchinson underlined the importance of the school safety audits and recurring training.

“Whenever you have the best laid plans, but there’s not the audits, the performance indicators and the actual adoption of good policy, then we’re going to have vulnerabilities, as you’ve seen in Uvalde, even though we’re awaiting additional information.”

Hutchinson said the special session, which could be convened in July or August, would not address firearms restrictions. He said he would like for Congress to have the opportunity to act first.

As for the type of tax relief the state may be able to provide, and any other spending the special session might authorize, the governor said he wants to hear more response from legislators.

“And there’s also a nervousness about the future economy,” Hutchinson said. “And so we want to make sure we have a sufficient amount of reserves so that if there is uncertainty in the economy in the future that we can adjust to it and make sure that we can meet our commitment to state services.

“Like several cities and counties, tax collections have been running substantially higher than the previous year. At the end of May, gross general revenues were $616.6 million, or 8.5 percent above last year, John Shelnutt, economic analyst for the state Department of Finance and Administration, reported Thursday. The state’s fiscal year ends June 30.

However, state sales tax collections in May were down 4.5 percent, or $12.3 million, compared to May 2021. Cities and counties may feel that downturn in June and July.

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