January 13, 2003
Posted at: 10:15 a.m. CDT
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. -- Governor Huckabee says it would be unrealistic for him to guarantee that the current structure of 310 separate public school districts will be maintained.
Public education will be chief among the problems legislators will consider when the General Assembly convenes Monday. Also to be worked into the balanced budget is money for Medicaid and prisons -- a pair of categories with ever-increasing costs.
The Legislature must respond to an Arkansas Supreme Court ruling that state public school funding is unfair and inadequate.
The governor has proposed a five-eighths-cent sales tax increase to maintain essential services. But legislators objected, saying they want to work within the existing tax structure. Education officials and other say it will remain an open question for much of
the year how much education improvements will cost. Huckabee's tax proposal is resting on a back burner, at least for the time being.
Huckabee has warned of the potential for drastic cuts in services. The two (b) billion dollar Medicaid program would be the most likely target. The government-funded health program for the poor, elderly and disabled serves about 500-thousand Arkansans
The state is trying to lure new businesses, and legislators may need a good idea on how to do it without spending any more money. The state has been working to bring in a Toyota plant that could locate in east Arkansas. Legislators will likely try to develop an
incentives package, which legislatures in competing states are also likely to generate.
Damage awards by juries will also likely be before legislators. Some legislators want to consider limiting damage awards that have quadrupled medical malpractice insurance premiums and caused the cost of liability insurance for nursing homes to skyrocket. Critics say that threatens the availability of long-term care in a state with one of the highest percentages of senior citizens in the nation.
Huckabee says issues facing the Legislature this session are as grave as any the state has faced.
Senator Jim Hill of Nashville, who will be Senate president pro tem, says it may take more than one session to get the work done. Education officials say the same thing, because a study mandated by the Arkansas Supreme Court won't be complete until late in the year. The session is scheduled to run two months.
Hill says the Legislature can make progress on education questions, even if it can't provide all the answers on a short-term basis.