Legislators update citizens on session

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Town Crier News Staff

State Representatives Charolette Wagner and Tommy Baker, along with State Senator Steve Bryles, held three press conferences on Tuesday updating mayors, council members and citizens, announcing there will be over $17 million in funds returning to Mississippi County. Their first stop was at Manila City Hall before meeting in Blytheville and Osceola.

"We were fortunate to have a surplus of $919 million this year," Rep. Wagner said. "It made the session more agreeable but there were also more requests. We no longer can work with the general improvement funds as it has been done in the past, so we had to come up with state-wide projects. We are pleased the surplus money will go to fire departments, senior citizen centers, colleges and universities, women's shelters, and planning and development throughout the state. We can not fund local projects with the surplus but the funds will be coming back to the communities. This year cities and counties will be getting a lump sum in addition to their regular turnback funds."

Cities and counties will see an increase in turnback funds this year.

Wagner talked about the work done on education issues saying over $12 million will go to schools for facilities.

She said Mississippi County fire departments will receive $70,000, $11,000 each for senior citizen centers, $30,000 for the Haven in Blytheville, $200,000 for Arkansas Northeastern College, $200,000 for East Arkansas Planning and Development. The planning and development fund will be distributed through a grant process and Wagner said they had encouraged them to give some of the money to each county.

"Education is important to every community," Wagner said.

Funds in the amount of $460 million will be used for construction, $121 million for instruction, and $40 million for pre-schools.

Wagner expressed her appreciation to Rep. Baker and Sen. Bryles.

"We worked together as a group on several issues throughout the session," Wagner said. "I appreciate both of them."

"This team went down there and worked together," Rep. Baker said. We did not leave anyone out and joined together to help our area. Small cities are home to a lot of people. We took care of education issues and managed to give our cities and counties a one-time increase in turnback funds, which has not been done since 1983, and were able to give funds to our rural communities and fire departments.

"We wanted to give citizens tax relief. It did not happen easy it took a lot of give and take. It was a really good session and I think a really good session for Mississippi County."

"We must be accountable," Sen. Bryles said. "It is important to stand before you at the end of the biennial session and talk about the impact the decisions will have on the citizens of Mississippi County. It is a lot easier to work with surplus than a deficit. With term limits one third of the legislators are new after each election. With my six years of experience I'm the old man on the block. I am proud of Tommy and Charolette, they served us well. Charolette hit the ground working. She understands the process. Tommy has served as president of the Municipal League. He knows state government. He was no rooky coming into state government. I look forward to serving with them."

Bryles explained deficit spending is illegal in the State of Arkansas.

"We can't deficit spend," he said. "It is easy in boom time for revenue to expand beyond need. Governor Beebe and his staff are very astute in the budget process."

Bryles went on to say the enhanced turnback funds will provide $20 million to the state; $12 million to the municipalities; and $12 million to the counties. Twenty-four million will be divided by population.

The Property Tax Relief fund, approved in 1998, giving homeowners an exemption of $300 was increased to $350. Bryles said the one half cent sales tax, set to offset the $300 cut, generated a surplus.

"Emphasis is placed on education," Bryles said. "sixty-eight percent of state revenue is dedicated to education. We are happy with the Supreme Court ruling our education reform is constitutional. We are pleased with the work done. Much of the surplus will be used for school facilities cost."

In 2007 Mississippi County School Districts will get $5.4 million in school facilities funding for improvements. In 2008-09 districts will get $10.7 million.

"It will be a share program," Bryles said. "We may see smaller districts getting more. What a mill will bring in one area is not the same. A one mill increase in Benton may raise $1,000 per student and a 1 mill in Mississippi County may bring $200 per student. When our tax payers pass a mill, the state will equal the amounts. This is will be a powerful tool for us who live in an area where our tax base is not as high. It will put us on a more even plateau. We will get more for our tax dollars."

The group also spoke for the need of quality pre-K programs giving all children equal opportunities.

Baker also talked briefly on their work toward establishing a drug court.

"This is a big deal for the county," he said. "We have to try something. Statistics show it will work. It has been successful in other parts of the state."

All three agreed this was a good session with a lot of accomplishments.

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