LITTLE ROCK — An appropriation bill from which cost-of-living adjustments for judges and prosecutors were removed last week cleared the Senate on Wednesday and heads to the governor for his signature.
House Bill 1024, the General Appropriation Bill which sets the funding level for constitutional officers, judges, prosecutors and legislators, passed in the Senate in a 33-0 vote, a day after it passed in the House.
The Joint Budget Committee last week removed a 2 percent cost-of-living adjustment for judges and prosecutors from the bill. Legislative leaders said they want to consider the question of whether to grant COLAs to all state employees later in the session.
Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, co-chairman of the budget committee, said he expects lawmakers to consider the COLAs for all state employees, including judges and prosecutors, later this session. He said he didn’t think the Legislature would support COLA’s for constitutional officers or legislators.
"As soon as we get to those bills we’ll be talking about it," he said, adding that he wasn’t sure if the COLAs would 2 percent or less. "I don’t know where we’re at on that… I remain optimistic that (they) we will get a COLA."
Elsewhere Wednesday, a bill to create a new veterans’ home to replace the closed Little Rock Veterans Home received an endorsement Wednesday from the House Committee on Aging, Children and Youth, Legislative and Military Affairs.
HB 1013 by Rep. John Edwards, D-Little Rock, would direct the state Department of Veterans Affairs to establish and maintain a new home for veterans at a location to be determined by the department’s director, after the director seeks advice from the state Veterans’ Commission. The home would have up to 150 beds and would replace the Little Rock facility that was closed in November because of safety concerns and financial problems.
The state now has only one veterans’ home, in Fayetteville. Edwards, an Iraq War veteran, said it is important to have a another home for veterans who want to live in it.
"If you don’t want to live there, live wherever you want to live," he said. "If you want to live in a private facility, great. If you want to live in your own home … you can stay in your own home. But if we’re going to have a place for these men and women, then let’s make it a good place."
Edwards estimated the cost to build the facility at $21 million. He said that under a U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs program, the federal government would provide 65 percent of the cost if the state can provide 35 percent. He said he plans to file a separate appropriation bill for the project.
Edwards was asked what would happen if Congress chose not to fund the Department of Veteran Affairs’ program.
"I think there’s a lot of support from our federal legislative leadership" for the program, he said. "If the federal money were not in place, then ultimately the state money would not be obligated."
The bill goes to the House.
The same committee also endorsed SB 7 by Sen. Eddie Williams, R-Cabot, which would allow spouses of personnel stationed at military installations in Arkansas to transfer any professional licenses or degrees in health care or education they might have in other states.
The bill, which passed previously in the Senate, advances to the House.
The Senate judiciary Committee on Wednesday endorsed a measure that would ban some sex offenders from swimming areas and children’s playgrounds at state parks.
SB 12 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, would prohibit level 3 or 4 sex offenders from being at a swimming area or a children’s playground in a state park, but would allow them to visit other areas in state parks.
Irvin said the bill expands on Act 816 of 2011, which prohibited level 3 or 4 sex offenders from being at city-owned swimming areas or water parks.
Richard Davies, director of the Arkansas Department of Parks and Tourism, spoke for the measure.
"We felt like we needed to so something … because whether right or wrong, the playground, swimming pool or the beach are often where children are left by parents unattended, for the most part," Davies said.
Speaking against the bill were Lynn Gilmore, CEO of Sex Offender Solutions and Education Network, and Carla Swanson, executive director of Arkansas Time After Time, an organization that works to help sex offenders who have served their prison time adjust to society.
"I know that many sex offenders have families, and when you punish a sex offender you not only punish them, you punish that family member," Gilmore said. "I know many Level 3 and Level 4 sex offenders that do have families and they just simply made a mistake in their past and they’re trying to get on with their life, trying to find work and housing ."
Sen. Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, told Gilmore he wasn’t concerned about the sex offender’s family.
"I’m a little concerned about the victim and their families," he said.
The bill now goes to the Senate.
The committee also endorsed SB 56 by Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, which would require out-of-state sex offenders to pay the $250 fee to register as a sex offender in Arkansas.
The bill goes to the Senate.