LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday signed legislation to allow implementation in Arkansas of a federal law aimed at helping people with disabilities become more self-sufficient.

LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Asa Hutchinson on Wednesday signed legislation to allow implementation in Arkansas of a federal law aimed at helping people with disabilities become more self-sufficient.


In a ceremony at the state Capitol, Hutchinson signed House Bill 1239 by Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, which contains enabling legislation for the federal ABLE Act, short for Achieving a Better Life Experience. The ceremony was held during the third annual Day at the Capitol for Individuals with Disabilities.


The ABLE Act, which Congress approved in December with support from every member of Arkansas’ congressional delegation, will allow people with disabilities to set up savings accounts without risking losing government benefits. Money in an account will not count toward asset tests for government assistance unless it exceeds $100,000.


The accounts will be exempt from state and federal taxes and can be used for expenses related to care.


"This is a really important piece of legislation," Hutchinson said. "I think it will make a great difference in the lives of individuals."


Each state must pass legislation to implement the ABLE Act. In Arkansas, the program will be administered by a committee composed of the director of the Department of Human Services, the director of Arkansas Rehabilitation Services and the state treasurer, or their designees.


"This will enable (people with disabilities) to save money for education, transportation, medical needs that are not met by other sources, technology — devices that they can use to assist them," Mayberry said.


The program is expected to have no cost to the state in the coming fiscal year and a $24,000 annual cost starting in fiscal 2017.


Arkansans with disabilities, their families, service providers and advocacy groups held activities at the Capitol throughout the morning and into the afternoon. The day also was a celebration of the 25th anniversary of the federal Americans with Disabilities Act.


At an afternoon rally, speakers discussed the legislative session, which recessed on Thursday. Speakers included Rep. Mary Broadaway, D-Paragould, who sponsored HB 1255, now Act 401, and HB 1256, now Act 931, companion measures to establish the Building Better Futures Program.


Under the program, colleges and universities in the state will be able to apply to the federal government to create educational programs for students with intellectual disabilities and access federal funding for the programs. The legislation also includes a provision to allow students to enroll in the programs while still in high school.


"We invest so much money in special ed K-12, getting our students as functioning as highly as they can, and then we send them home to their parents’ basements," Broadaway said in an interview. "There’s no educational opportunities, there’s nothing for them out there. If they can participate in these higher ed programs and get employable, then they can be included in our society."


Also mentioned at the rally was HB 1552, now Act 1178, by Rep. Douglas House, R-North Little Rock, which creates the Succeed Scholarship Program. Under the program, a student with disabilities who has an individualized education program and has attended a public school for at least one year can apply for a state-funded scholarship to attend a private school.


The amount of a scholarship cannot exceed the per-student funding amount the state is providing to public schools.


Speakers also discussed bills that failed in the session, including HB 1749 by Rep. Josh Miller, R-Heber Springs, which failed to clear the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.


The bill called for the state to find a way to serve disabled and elderly Arkansans who are seeking home- or community-based care and are on a waiting list for the Alternative Community Services Waiver Program. The state could either adopt the Community First Choice Option, a part of the federal Affordable Care Act that would increase federal matching funds for the waiver program, or develop an alternative plan to eliminate the waiting list.


"Had that passed, we would have seen an impact for 3,100 individuals who are trying to receive services in their community," Tom Masseau, executive director of Disability Rights Arkansas, said in an interview. "I think that was the biggest issue for the disability community … because a lot of the families have been on that list for eight to 10 years."


Masseau said the bill faced resistance because of its connection to the Affordable Care Act at a time "when everybody runs against Obamacare."