LR plans look at how to use increased tax

Monday, January 23rd, 2012

Arkansas Democrat Gazette



LITTLE ROCK — Little Rock city directors will examine capital projects to be paid for with revenue from the September sales tax increase during a work session Tuesday.

“The goal is to begin to lay out the framework for the recommended plan of action regarding the expenditures of the capital portion of the sales-tax initiative,” City Manager Bruce Moore said Friday.

Voters approved increasing the city’s tax rate from 0.5 percent to 1.5 percent. Three-eighths percent of the tax goes toward capital improvements and five-eighths to operations.People now pay 8.5 percent in sales taxes in Little Rock, which includes a 1 percent county tax and a 6 percent state tax.

The capital-improvements portion of the tax will expire in 10 years after generating about $196 million. About $72 million of the money would go toward street and drainage improvements.

“It’s a 10-year plan, but obviously there are some critical things that we feel like we’ll need to move forward with in the next five years or so,” Moore said.

City directors are already moving forward with one project: an $8.7 million emergency communications system to replace a nearly 30-year-old radio system.

In December, Little Rock city directors passed a $158.6 million operating budget that included 57 new jobs ranging from a full-time veterinarian for the zoo to 15 maintenance workers for the Parks Department. Along with the new hires, the budget includes filling 102 positions, including 32 vacant police officer jobs and eight code-enforcement positions.

Little Rock is adding 12 new officers to its Community Oriented Policing program, made up of officers who are stationed at alert centers or are out on bicycle patrols.

The largest chunk of the maintenance and operations budget went to public safety. Combined, the Police Department and Fire Department account for $91.3 million of the operating budget. Along with new police officers, the city plans to hire 12 new firefighters this year. Eventually, the tax will pay for the hiring of 36 firefighters.

Moore said also high on the list of capital projects needed is the completion of a fire station in west Little Rock.

Fire Chief Gregory Summers has said that firemen struggle to meet even 10-minute response times in the western reaches of the city.

Such high response times coupled with other factors put the city at risk of losing its Class 2 ISO rating last year.

Formerly called the Insurance Services Office, the agency rates cities on a variety of factors such as the number of fire stations and response times; the city’s water supply; the equipment available to firefighters, how many are on duty on an average day and the amount of training they have and the city’s 911 dispatch system.After scoring all the factors, an average is taken and class rating assigned on scale in which Class 1 is best and Class 10 is worst. As these ratings drop, fire-insurance rates in the city increase.

On a scale of 100 points, Little Rock scored 81.44 and barely kept its Class 2 rating for 2011.

A residents sales-tax overview committee has yet to be appointed.

Mayor Mark Stodola has said he forwarded to city directors a list of names of people who applied to serve on the committee and had hoped to make appointments Jan. 3.

However, Ward 3 Director Stacy Hurst asked for more time to contact potential members who could serve on the committee. Since Tuesday’s meeting will be dedicated to the capital-improvements budget, the committee appointments won’t come back before the board until the Jan. 31 meeting.

Moore said that whatever the board decides Tuesday will be taken to the public in a series of ward meetings that he expects to begin next month.

The council meets at 6 p.m. at City Hall, 500 W. Markham.


Arkansas Moving Forward with Hybrid Federal-State Health Insurance Exchange

Thursday, January 19th, 2012

Talk Business


When Insurance Commissioner Jay Bradford “quashed” plans for a state-run health insurance exchange in early December, he noted that Arkansas would join a federal program with little local input.

Not so fast.

It turns out Arkansas is pushing to join a “hybrid” federal-state model that was created in part by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) in response to states not being able to structure state exchanges in the last year.

“When they realized so many states weren’t going to develop state-run exchanges, they moved to this to provide some state input,” said Alice Jones, spokesperson for the Arkansas Insurance Department.

Under the hybrid model — known as the Federally-Facilitated Health Benefit Exchage (FFE) — states would have some flexibility and control over insurance plan selection, rating, monitoring and limited oversight, Jones said. However, there will be no local consumer call center to address Arkansans’ problems. They will be referred to a federal call center for resolution.

In essence, health exchanges were outlined in the controversial Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act signed into law in early 2010. Exchanges are a marketplace for comparing private insurance plans that would primarily serve individuals and small businesses seeking health insurance options. States could ultimately choose to include larger employers in exchanges, which must be up and running by 2014.

REQUEST FOR FEDERAL FUNDS Arkansas is hoping to receive $7.66 million from the feds for the hybrid program. Money from that grant would help determine cost estimates for state participation in the FFE, Jones said. She added that the goal of getting federal funding is to keep Arkansas from spending state dollars.

“Without federal establishment funding, there will be costs to the state with the FFE,” she warned. A timeframe for hearing from the federal government could be months away.

So far, Arkansas has only received $1 million for an initial exchange planning grant. It was the subject of a heated budget debate in the last legislative session, which almost saw the entire Arkansas Insurance Department budget rejected.

The $1 million received and the $7.66 million requested is a pittance compared to other state’s requests.

To date, nearly $729.5 million has been awarded to states for health exchange planning, establishment and innovator grants. This chart, provided by the Insurance Department, highlights each state’s awards so far.

Some states have requested no grant money, while states like Arizona, California, Massachusetts, and Wisconsin have received tens of millions of dollars.

Arkansas’ sister states have received as little as $998,416 (Louisiana) and as much as $55.5 million (Oklahoma).

LETTERS CIRCULATE Gov. Mike Beebe (D) revealed on Dec. 22 that he sent a letter to HHS supporting the state’s request to join the hybrid effort.

“This partnership will allow us to apply for federal money that will permit us to meet our legal requirements using as little state funding as possible,” Beebe said in December. “It will also help to ensure that, as more Arkansans sign up for health-insurance programs, the premium taxes collected on those policies remain in Arkansas and don’t go to Washington.”

“Insurance options are best modeled with local needs and perspectives in mind, and this partnership program will give Arkansas a voice in that process, even with the federal government in control of this exchange,” Beebe added.

Rep. Reginald Murdock (D-Marianna) circulated a letter this week among House colleagues encouraging them to support the FFE.

“We missed our first opportunity to prevent the federal government from having complete control over the implementation of our Health Exchange,” Murdock wrote. “Now Arkansas has another opportunity… The Federally-Facilitated Health Benefit Exchange Partnership Model will allow us, as most states are doing, to have some input into the implementation of our Health Exchange.”

Murdock stressed 4 key points about the FFE Partnership in his letter: 1) There is a cooperative agreement and federal funding for planning Exchange functions that Arkansas is best suited to perform; 2) There is no ‘pay-back’ requirement if Arkansas decides to choose a wholly federally-facilitated Exchange after studying the FFE Partnership Model; 3) Partnership funding will assist the Arkansas Department of Human Services (DHS) with planning Medicaid interfaces needed to connect with the federal enrollment/eligibility portal; 4) If parts of the current law are struck down by the Supreme Court, FFE Partnership funding will have helped Arkansas improve our systems at the Arkansas Insurance Department and DHS.

But some House members who have been skeptical of the state push on federal health care reform from the beginning expressed reservations with the latest plan.

Rep. David Meeks (R-Conway) questioned the need for the FFE hybrid approach in light of a year-long legislative debate and a looming U.S. Supreme Court decision.

“The Fed-State Partnership is just a repackaging of what a bipartisan group of legislators already rejected,” he said. “There is no reason to move forward on an exchange when the law will most likely be found unconstitutional and overturned by the Supreme Court later this year.”

In the 2011 regular session, Meeks filed two bills to deal with health care reform. One bill, HB 1053, would have prevented mandatory enrollment for health insurance — a linchpin of the federal health care reform law.


NanoMech Leaders Honored By Industry Trade Group

Wednesday, January 18th, 2012

Roby Brock – Talk Business


The NanoBusiness Commercialization Association (NanoBCA) has honored two of Springdale-based NanoMech’s leaders — Jim Phillips, Chairman, president and CEO, and Dr. Ajay Malshe, chief technology officer.  The two men were named to the association’s “Most Influential Nanotechnology Leaders” list for 2011.

“We are so proud of this recognition,” said Phillips. “This national recognition is a tremendous development for us and our company, as we are included on a list of honorees that include some of the best scientific minds and business leaders in the nation. It is both inspiring and humbling to appear on this list of nanotechnology leaders who are creating a more competitive and innovative nation.”

NanoBCA is the industry’s top trade organization dedicated to promoting the commercialization of nanotechnology. Each year NanoBCA develops a list of the top 25 most influential leaders in nanotechnology in America.

“The common thread amongst the honored individuals is that they are all nanotechnology evangelists. Kudos to these leaders for their contributions to our nanotechnology community,” said Vincent Caprio, executive director of NanoBCA.

“Mr. Phillips keynoted our annual meeting this fall, and the membership and audience were especially appreciative of his ability to articulate how the nanoscale material science revolution is very similar in scope and importance in terms of innovation and transformation as was the digital revolution of the 20th century,” Caprio added.

Nanomech, which evolved from research being conducted at the University of Arkansas, has produced several innovative product lines using nanotechnology.  For more on the company, visit this feature story from Talk Business.


State leaders extol legacy of King’s work

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

Arkansas Democrat Gazette



LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Mike Beebe on Monday praised the wisdom and courage of Martin Luther King Jr. in taking a nonviolent course in his quest for civil rights.

At a prayer breakfast at Shorter College in North Little Rock on King’s Birthday and Robert E. Lee’s Birthday, attendees celebrated King. Beebe said it’s important to honor King so younger people who were born after his death in 1968 may understand his legacy and commitment to nonviolence.

At one point the governor asked those in the crowd born after King’s death to stand up. About half of the more than 200 attendees did so.

King’s nonviolent approach took more courage than a violent one, but ultimately proved a wiser strategy in promoting equality, Beebe said.

“The hearts of the American people would not have been turned as quickly” without a peaceful strategy, Beebe said. “The success would have been much, much slower in coming. And it was slow enough as it was.”

Other speakers at the breakfast included Attorney General Dustin McDaniel, Martin Luther King Jr. Commission Executive Director DuShun Scarbrough, U.S. Sen. Mark Pryor and U.S. Rep.Mike Ross.

Ross said investing in early childhood education for all children will help ensure King’s legacy continues.

“We’ve come a long way,” he said. “But we’ve still got a long way to go.”

Pryor said work still needs to be done. He told the crowd about how an angry constituent criticized him recently because congressmen get off on all the “Christian, Jewish and black holidays.” Pryor said he asked the man what he meant by “black holidays” and the constituent responded with King’s Birthday.

“I said that’s not a black holiday,” Pryor said to applause. “That’s a national holiday.”

Samuel L. Green Sr., bishop of 12th Episcopal District of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and chairman of Shorter College’s board, drew parallels between King’s message and the Occupy Wall Street movement.

“Occupy the dream,” he said. “There is still inequality in our land. People on Wall Street are still getting richer while folks on your street are getting poorer.”

The event’s keynote speaker, state Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, read a letter he wrote that imagined King’s voice responding to modern issues. In the piece,Williams had King thanking the country for establishing the holiday and constructing a memorial in his honor, but criticizing it for uncivilized politics, ongoing problems with hunger and health care and a focus on technology at the expense of other issues.

“It seems to me your spirituality and your morality lags far behind your technology,” Williams said.

Other lawmakers from around the state issued statements in honor of the holiday.

State Rep. Jane English, R-North Little Rock, said in an e-mailed statement “that we must judge people ‘by the content of their character’ is Dr. King’s greatest legacy, and we must endeavor to pass it on to future generations. In doing so, we will continue to honor his memory.”

State Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Bigelow, said in an e-mail that King was “first and foremost, a minister of the Gospel.

“His life and work moved our nation closer towards the more perfect union our nation’s founders dreamed of. By honoring Dr. King, we honor the greatness of our nation.”

The state Democratic and Republican parties issued statements tying their policies to King’s legacy.

Information for this article was contributed by Gavin Lesnick of Arkansas Online.



Beebe Proposes $163 Million Increase in Arkansas Budget

Tuesday, January 17th, 2012

The Associated Press 1/17/12

LITTLE ROCK – Medicaid and public schools would receive the bulk of a $163 million funding increase and state employees would not receive a pay raise in a relatively flat $4.7 billion budget that Gov. Mike Beebe presented to lawmakers on Tuesday.

Beebe is calling for $117 million in new money for the state’s Human Services Department to pay for growth in Medicaid and wants $56 million in additional funding for Arkansas’ public schools for the coming year.

Some of the increased funding is offset by small reductions that the governor is proposing for other agencies, including $15 million from a fund for merit-based pay raises.

“This is a very conservative budget and a very conservative forecast,” Department of Finance and Administration Director Richard Weiss told members of the Joint Budget Committee.

Finance officials on Tuesday detailed Beebe’s proposed budget for the year that begins July 1. The proposal would increase the state’s budget by $163 million. Lawmakers convene for the fiscal session on Feb. 13.

Most of the Human Services increase will go toward the state’s Medicaid program, an amount that would have been higher had an expected shortfall for the coming year materialized. Beebe called for a $114 million boost for Medicaid, with another $2.9 million for the state hospital.

The $56 million boost for public schools stems from a 2 percent increase that lawmakers had recommended to adequately fund education.

Beebe also proposed $2.1 million in increased funding for prisons and $3.3 million for some higher education institutions. The higher education money is targeted at some four-year and two-year schools and aimed at addressing funding inequities, finance officials said.

The governor is not proposing a pay raise for state workers, despite a push from some lawmakers. To help pay for more tax cuts pushed by lawmakers, Beebe last year agreed to drop a 1.86 percent pay raise he had proposed.

The Joint Budget Committee also announced Tuesday that a Democratic representative from Marked Tree and a Republican senator from Mountain View would chair a subcommittee looking at the financially troubled Arkansas Forestry Commission.

Rep. Buddy Lovell and Sen. Missy Irvin were named Tuesday as co-chairs of the Joint Budget Committee’s subcommittee focusing on the agency. The panel is the only budget subcommittee that is expected to meet during budget hearings.

The commission announced in December that it would lay off 36 workers because of a $4 million shortfall. Beebe has requested $2.7 million from the state’s surplus, some of which will repay federal grants the agency that had been misusing to operate. Legislative auditors are also looking into the commission’s finances.