Update on legislative session, American Rescue Plan money
By Chris Villines
AAC Executive Director
When this issue hits your hands, we will either have adjourned the 93rd General Assembly, recessed awaiting census figures or be in the process of rushing to completion. Very probably a combination of the second and third, which means we will be close to wrapping up but still awaiting critical census numbers required for congressional redistricting.
I am asked often during a session how the counties are faring, and to be honest it is only after the dust settles that you can take a broad view of where we really stand. I can tell you that our legislative package is proceeding along nicely. This package of legislation is put together by you at a county level — a true grassroots effort.
Many people don’t realize that the vast majority of the legislative package we put forth at the AAC is actually voted on three times before it even reaches the Capitol. Your individual association will vote and send it on to the statewide legislative committee. They will then vote to send it on to the AAC Board of Directors. The final vote by the AAC Board puts forth the roughly 25 to 30 bills we regularly adopt as our goal for the session.
With only a couple of exceptions the AAC legislative package is moving through the chambers, with many of our ideas already signed into law. By my count, as of this writing, 16 acts have been signed by the Governor already that came directly from you. I am very proud of the efforts of our policy team, which includes Mark Whitmore, Lindsey French, Josh Curtis and Eddie Jones, and their magnificent efforts to plant, water and raise these bills to maturity. There is no finer team to work with. I can’t imagine tracking 500 bills with anyone else in the world.
In the meanwhile, COVID is taking a continued toll on the legislative process. Many of you would have been testifying more but this session is, shall we say, unwieldy when it comes to this. The good news is case counts continue to drop and vaccinations appear to be making a substantial impact. I suspect things will be opening up a bit more. The rotunda is usually hard to move through — not true this session. Echoes of laughter and deep conversations have been replaced with the sound of occasional footsteps.
Many of the same bills we see session after session have been filed again with a new twist. We are watching them closely for all of you. As we progress to the end you will all continue to be informed of these bills and given an increasing opportunity to discuss with committees and legislators. Unfortunately, the end of a session lends itself to quickly introduced and run bills, so please stay tuned in to our updates — and please feel free to call with questions if you see a bill you don’t understand. Believe me when I tell you we see a lot of bills that are head-scratchers for us too.
I do want to share a couple of specific issues that we continue to deal with. As many of you know, I cover retirement bills for you and have done what I can to keep you all up to speed on what changes would be proposed this session. As expected, the APERS Board of Trustees package of bills has passed. These three bills (now acts) will take effect July 1, 2022. The Cost-of-Living Adjustment (COLA) for retirees will drop to the lesser of 3 percent or the Consumer Price Index (CPI) moving forward — but ONLY for people first hired into an APERS covered position on or after July 1, 2022. This is ACT 366.
Secondly, contributory members will see an increase in the contribution they must pay into the APERS system. This contribution rate sits at 5 percent now, but will begin a rise to 7 percent over the next eight years, also beginning on July 1, 2022. Each year will see an increase of 0.25 percent until it reaches the 7 percent figure on July 1, 2029. This is ACT 365.
Thirdly, and this is a change from what the APERS board had voted on, there will be a change in the Final Average Compensation (FAC) calculation, but instead of applying to existing members it will apply only to those first hired on or after July 1, 2022. For those new hires who eventually reach retirement, the FAC will expand to a five-year average instead of the three-year average. Those already in the system will continue to use the three-year average. This is ACT 370.
There are several other bills running in retirement — some good, some not so good. Please stay tuned to our communication channels as we get close to the end.
Next I would like to turn your attention to a series of bills that are being run that are strongly supported by our law enforcement. I am not going to get into the details on them because as you will see later in this issue there is extensive coverage. The “Back the Blue” package of legislation is important for all law enforcement in our state, and our sheriffs have long-needed some of the training, financing and, well, love that is being shown them in these bills. While we knew there would be movement in this session to push Governor Hutchinson’s task force recommendations, it has been a breath of fresh air to see incredible support in the legislature.
Please take the time to read AAC Law Clerk Dorothy Spector’s article on “Back the Blue” in this issue. The state of law enforcement in Arkansas will hopefully be given some opportunities in this session that have long-lasting positive impacts on generations to come.
Please get yourselves ready for some major financial influxes with even more major responsibilities under the recently signed American Rescue Plan (ARP). I think many of us have learned that one of the most dangerous things in our fiscal lives is money without a plan to spend it. This is about to happen, or at least appear to happen when ARP checks are deposited into county and municipal bank accounts. The problem is, there is a plan on how it can be spent — but it may come after you receive money. Also, please know that the vast majority of this money will be used for recovery in our communities, not for the county coffers. ARP simply shifts the decision-making on where this money goes to a local level.
We are working diligently to present counties with a system that provides answers on how money can and cannot be spent. There’s no way to cover all of this just yet, but expect some very important communications from us in the coming days.