LITTLE ROCK - The Senate passed two bills to streamline state agencies and make them more efficient. Other bills are in the pipeline.
Senate Bill 256 transfers the relatively small Arkansas Energy Office to the larger Department of Environmental Quality. The legislature created the Energy Office in 1981, a period when the country was recovering from oil shortages and long lines at gas stations. Its mission is to help people make their homes and offices more energy efficient, and helps agencies and schools get grants to pay for new equipment.
Senate Bill 257 transfers the Office of Health Information Technology to the Health Department. Since 2009 the smaller agency has helped medical professionals store and transmit health records electronically. The goal is for physicians, hospitals, clinics and pharmacies and all other providers to have access to a patient's records as quickly and easily as possible.
In other news, the governor signed Act 148 to fundamentally change how colleges and universities get state aid. Instead of basing their funding on enrollment, Act 148 will apply a formula based on the number of students who graduate or earn a certificate that helps them get a job.
A provision in Act 148 limits the amount an institution's funding can decrease to no more than two percent from one fiscal year to the next.
The governor signed Act 141, which will exempt all military retirement benefits from state income taxes starting in tax year 2018. Under current law only the first $6,000 in military retirement is exempt.
The act will benefit about 29,000 Arkansas veterans who served in the military long enough to earn retirement benefits. Each year, the act will reduce their state income taxes by an average of $462 each.
Act 131 extends the length of time that military members have to renew their drivers' licenses after their discharge. Under current law their license stays valid for 30 days after their discharge, if they are serving out of the state and the license expires while they're still serving. Act 131 extends to 60 days the period during which their driver's license remains valid.
In each of its regular sessions the legislature may refer to voters up to three proposed constitutional amendments. The deadline for submitting proposed amendments has passed and 35 possible amendments were filed by lawmakers. The narrowing of that list to three will be the focus of the Senate and House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees.
The measures we place on the ballot will be decided by voters in a statewide election in the general election of November, 2018.
A major bill that is still being worked on is Senate Bill 136, a 46-page bill to modernize parole policies and criminal sentencing. It sets up additional training for police and correction officers in how to handle offenders going through mental health crises. It sets up a monitoring program so that law enforcement can keep track of the number of inmates with mental health problems.
SB 136, which is in the Senate Judiciary Committee, reiterates sentencing guidelines and requires a judge to provide a written reason for departing from those guidelines.
The bill sets limits on how long parole violators can be kept in prison, if the violation was technical or non-violent.