Look­ing back over 2018 changes

The Times (Northeast Benton County) - - OPINION - CE­CILE BLEDSOE Arkansas Sen­a­tor

LIT­TLE ROCK – The ma­jor po­lit­i­cal head­lines of 2018 in­clude voter ap­proval of a con­sti­tu­tional amend­ment to al­low casino gam­bling in four Arkansas lo­ca­tions.

Vot­ers also ap­proved an amend­ment to re­quire cit­i­zens to present a gov­ern­ment-is­sued photo ID in or­der to re­ceive a bal­lot. An ini­ti­ated act to grad­u­ally in­crease the min­i­mum wage also was ap­proved in the Novem­ber elec­tion.

The four casi­nos are al­lowed in West Mem­phis, Hot Springs, Pine Bluff and Rus­sel­lville. The min­i­mum wage mea­sure will in­crease the state min­i­mum wage from $8.50 to $9.25 per hour in 2019, then to $10 per hour in 2020. Fi­nally it would in­crease to $11 per hour in 2021.

The photo ID mea­sure writes into the Con­sti­tu­tion many pro­vi­sions of voter fraud laws en­acted by the leg­is­la­ture in re­cent years. Now that the re­quire­ments are in the Con­sti­tu­tion, they can with­stand law­suits con­tend­ing that they are un­con­sti­tu­tional.

An on­go­ing fed­eral law­suit has the po­ten­tial to af­fect the state Med­i­caid pro­gram. Be­cause Med­i­caid is such a large pro­gram, the law­suit could af­fect the bud­gets of nu­mer­ous other state agen­cies.

The law­suit chal­lenges Arkansas Med­i­caid reg­u­la­tions that re­quire some par­tic­i­pants to look for a job, vol­un­teer or take adult ed­u­ca­tion and job train­ing classes in or­der to get ben­e­fits.

Since the re­quire­ments took ef­fect, more than 12,000 peo­ple have been dropped from Med­i­caid rolls, and have been pro­hib­ited from re-en­rolling un­til the end of the year.

The re­quire­ments ap­ply to peo­ple in Arkansas Works, a Med­i­caid pro­gram for adults whose yearly in­come is be­low 138 per­cent of the fed­eral poverty level.

Arkansas Works was formerly known as the pri­vate op­tion and some­times is re­ferred to as Med­i­caid ex­pan­sion.

It was orig­i­nally es­tab­lished to com­ply with pro­vi­sions in the fed­eral af­ford­able care act. The work re­quire­ments were es­sen­tial in or­der to gar­ner suf­fi­cient po­lit­i­cal sup­port among con­ser­va­tives in the leg­is­la­ture. Fund­ing of Med­i­caid re­quires ma­jori­ties of 75 per­cent in the Arkansas Se­nate and House.

All 75 coun­ties in Arkansas, and the great ma­jor­ity of its towns and cities, have joined in a law­suit against drug man­u­fac­tur­ers and dis­trib­u­tors of opi­oids, which are pre­scrip­tion painkillers that are highly ad­dic­tive.

The state Drug Di­rec­tor told city of­fi­cials the enor­mous vol­ume of opi­oids be­ing dis­trib­uted in Arkansas makes en­force­ment and treat­ment ex­tremely dif­fi­cult.

For ex­am­ple, more than 235 mil­lion pills were pre­scribed in a sin­gle year, al­though Arkansas has a pop­u­la­tion of about three mil­lion. Opi­oids are painkillers such as hy­drocodone, oxy­codone, codeine and fen­tanyl.

Also in 2018, a non-profit or­ga­ni­za­tion called In­for­ma­tion Su­per­high­way ranked Arkansas schools first in the na­tion in rank­ings of high speed In­ter­net ca­pac­ity. The Arkansas Pub­lic School Com­puter Net­work can now pro­vide In­ter­net ser­vice at a rate of one megabit per sec­ond per user to 98 per­cent of the state’s schools, which is more than any other state.

The Arkansas School Safety Com­mis­sion re­cently sub­mit­ted its fi­nal re­port. It was cre­ated in re­sponse to a school shoot­ing in Florida.

The panel rec­om­mended that all schools have an armed per­son on cam­pus when­ever stu­dents are present. It also rec­om­mended im­prove­ments in how coun­selors and ed­u­ca­tors en­gage with stu­dents who have po­ten­tial men­tal ill­nesses.

• • •

Ed­i­tor’s note: Arkansas Sen. Ce­cile Bledsoe rep­re­sents the third dis­trict. From Rogers, Sen. Bledsoe is chair of the Pub­lic Health, Wel­fare and La­bor Com­mit­tee.

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