The 2023 Arkansas General Assembly started last week in Little Rock, with several major issues on the agenda including education, crime and tax reform.
Sen. Blake Johnson (R-Corning) said the debate on those issues will be continuing during the session at the Capitol.
Sen. Johnson, who was selected as Senate Majority Leader for the session, said issues like tax reform and education have a base of support among lawmakers. But there are things to work out.
On taxes, Johnson said he has been in the legislature for eight years and that the focus has been on the income tax.
He believes that focus will continue this session and that it is also a focus of Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders.
However, he said issues like education and crime, including building new prisons will take up a lot of the debate and that those needs must be met as well.
The senator said that when he came into office, the individual tax rate in the state was 7 percent and that it has been reduced to 4.9 percent. Johnson said the state has to be competitive in its tax rates and that there is still work left to do on the issue.
On education, Sen. Johnson said the public agrees with parental school choice and that the Arkansas Constitution requires a K-12 education for students.
A pair of surveys last year from the University of Arkansas Office for Education Policy showed support for school choice programs.
The surveys showed 88 percent of parents each supports the K-12 Succeed Scholarship Program and the Arkansas K-12 tax-credit scholarship.
The Succeed Scholarship Program helps children with special needs, who are in foster homes and are in military families to receive a $7,000 voucher for private school tuition, according to the UA survey. The money does not reduce or impact funding for public schools, officials have said.
The tax credit scholarship also allows donations from people and businesses to pay for private school scholarships (about $6,000) for low-income students with a maximum income of $53,000 for a family of four.
However, those who have been opposed to school choice have said they believe the focus should be on public schools and that funding would be impacted by major changes.
He said the state has been sidetracked by COVID and other factors in the past few years, but that the focus should be on not how much money is spent on education, but how it is being spent.
Sen. Johnson also said he believes Gov. Sanders will focus on academics, including improving literacy scores.
The governor, who was sworn in last week, signed an executive order Wednesday to create the fundamentals for her education plan.
During her inaugural address, Gov. Sanders said she believes the goal should be in helping children and parents.
“Education is the key that opens the door to a lifetime of opportunity. We cannot allow a child’s destiny to be determined by their zip code or the size of their parent’s bank account. We know that students of every background can succeed if given a fair chance, a strong start, and a helping hand,” Gov. Sanders said.
“Just as I promised you as a candidate, I will make education reform the hallmark of my administration. I will be Arkansas’s education governor. We will improve literacy for our youngest students. We will reward our teachers with higher pay. And we will empower parents with more choices, so that no child is ever trapped in a failing school or sentenced to a lifetime of poverty. Parents are the cornerstone of a good education. Our public schools do not belong to education bureaucrats in Washington DC – they belong to you.”
Sen. Johnson said the crime and prison issue has been a proverbial can that has been kicked for a long time in the state Capitol and needs to be addressed.
A truth in sentencing and parole bill was filed last year by Rep. Jimmy Gazaway (R-Paragould) as debate on the issue will continue this session.
Johnson said he believes the number one goal for any society is to provide for the common defense, which is safety; and that in order to pursue life and liberty, a person must have a safe environment to do so.
Johnson also mentioned the need for mental health training as well as part of the debate.
As for the debate, he said it will include discussion from everyone including sheriffs, police chiefs, prosecutors and others who deal with the issue on a daily basis.
He also mentioned that there are between 1,000 and 2,000 state inmates in county jails right now and that building a new prison will help alleviate that burden.
Gov. Sanders said in her address that the crime issue is key as well.
Johnson said it is an honor to become Majority Leader in the state Senate and that the goal will be to keep Republicans together and unified as they work on policy.
Gov. Sanders also announced that she will be meeting weekly with legislative leaders to go over issues and concerns during the session.
Johnson said communication, especially in a session, can be vitally important and that he believes the meetings will help develop the relationship between lawmakers and the executive branch.
The session continued on Tuesday in Little Rock.