A bill intended to change how Arkansas counties and municipalities publish various legal notices was filed Thursday.

House Bill 1399, by Rep. Frances Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, would require local jurisdictions to publish notices — including those related to elections, filling of vacancies and the amendment of ordinances — on government websites.

The bill would strike language from current law that requires municipalities and counties to publish notices in local newspapers. The publication of government notices is a significant stream of revenue for many newspapers.

The Arkansas Press Association and the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette oppose the bill.

Under the bill, a county quorum court shall designate by ordinance the website which the county’s online publications will be posted.

When authorized by law, a municipality may publish on a website designated by the governing body in an ordinance. Publications shall remain on the government websites for at least three years from the date on which they were posted.

The websites must be accessible to the public at no cost and require no log-in information.

Temporary language in the bill indicates local jurisdictions would have to publish notices in their current newspaper monthly for a year directing readers to the government site.

The bill includes an effective date of Jan. 1, 2024.

— Will Langhorne

$4 million funds transfer to UAMS approved

The Joint Budget Committee on Thursday approved the transfer of $4 million in state-restricted reserve funds to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

UAMS requested $4 million in state-restricted reserve funds to support the rural hospital reclassification efforts of UAMS as part of the expansion of graduate medical education programs in the state, UAMS Chancellor Cam Patterson said in a letter dated Jan. 26 to state Department of Finance and Administration Secretary Larry Walther.

Walther recommended the Joint Budget Committee authorize the transfer of the restricted reserve funds to UAMS.

Patterson said the funding will cover UAMS’ Medicare deficit for the 15-month period of time during which the rural hospital reclassification process occurs.

Afterward, Amanda George, UAMS chief financial officer, said in a written statement that “the ‘deficit’ is related to a temporary reduction in our Medicare payments due to being classified as rural.”

She said the U.S. Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services “has a lower wage index adjustment for rural hospitals,” and “UAMS has already been approved by CMS to reclass to the urban wage index, but won’t take effect until Oct 1. The support from the state will offset this reduction in payment until then.”

Patterson wrote in his letter to Walther that “once complete, additional dollars created from this mechanism will allow UAMS to create up to seventeen new [graduate medical education] programs throughout the state resulting in 94 additional positions, including 34 first year positions in critical areas such as Preventive Medicine, Pediatrics, Psychiatry, Obstetrics, Family Medicine, Internal Medicine, Anesthesiology, and additional funding to cover expenses for current residents above the cap.”

— Michael R. Wickline

Senate backs bill on levying taxes

The Arkansas Senate on Thursday approved a bill that would prohibit local governments from levying income taxes.

The Senate voted 27-6 to approve House Bill 1026 by Rep. David Ray, R-Maumelle, sending it back to the House to consider the Senate’s amendment to the measure.

Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, said state law currently allows local governments to impose an income tax, but no local governments in Arkansas levy an income tax.

On Wednesday, Payton distributed to the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee a list of 12 states in which local governments levy an income tax. They include Alabama, California, Colorado, Delaware, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Michigan, Missouri and New Jersey. Local income taxes are also allowed in the District of Columbia.

— Michael R. Wickline

Baby drop-off bill sent to governor

The Arkansas Senate voted Thursday to send the governor a bill that would allow certain volunteer fire departments to install drop-off boxes where parents could safely and anonymously relinquish babies.

The Senate voted 34-0 to approve House Bill 1098, sponsored by Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley.

The bill would require firefighters at volunteer departments to monitor video feeds of the drop-off boxes at all times and prove they could respond to a baby being placed in the boxes within at least four minutes. It also would allow parents to surrender newborns to medical providers immediately after delivery.

Under current law, mothers are not allowed to relinquish babies to hospital staff immediately after giving birth.

State statutes currently allow parents to surrender infants 30 days or younger in drop-off boxes, also known as “safe haven baby boxes,” at hospitals, law enforcement offices and fire departments that are staffed at all times.

— Michael R. Wickline

Corrections chief measure advances

The Arkansas Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee on Thursday advanced a bill that would specify the secretary of the state Department of Corrections serves at the pleasure of the governor.

The committee recommended Senate approval of Senate Bill 194 by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs.

“The state Board of Corrections shall appoint the secretary who shall serve at the pleasure of the Board of Corrections” under existing state law.

Hester told the Senate committee the state’s 0ther 14 department secretaries answer to the governor and not a board for a department, and “this is the only one that is unique like that and makes it fall into line with all the others.”

But Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn, said that “so even though the board is appointing the secretary, the secretary will serve at the pleasure of the governor” under SB194.

Hester said he knows the governor appoints the department secretary, and the Board of Corrections also has a vote on the department secretary.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said it is his understanding that the governor nominates the secretary and the state Board of Corrections confirms that nomination.

— Michael R. Wickline

House OKs school building proposal

The Arkansas House approved a bill on Thursday intended to adjust how construction costs are calculated for school projects.

With seven lawmakers voting present, House Bill 1254, by Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, passed 78-8.

The bill would require the state Division of Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation to use “funding factors” updated annually for determining the basic project cost per square foot for various types of construction projects.

Mayberry said the “funding factors” would allow for more up-to-date cost calculations.

“The issue for school districts is that we’ve got a lot of construction projects going on and they’re currently being funded at $200 a square foot,” she said. “The average price in 2022 for construction projects at our schools was $375 a square foot.”

Some lawmakers raised questions as to how the bill would affect projects that have already received funding.

Mayberry said her bill would only affect projects moving forward. While the bill would not increase funding for the construction of facilities, Mayberry noted it could result in fewer districts receiving funding.

“So we go from 75 school districts that might have received funding at $200 a square foot to potentially 50 school districts that will now receive money,” she said. “It’s the same pot of money, we’re just dividing it less, but the school districts are actually receiving more money so they can accomplish what they are trying to accomplish.”

Mayberry noted legislators could approve more funding for school construction projects overall if they choose.

— Will Langhorne

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