May 29, 2013 Edition

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Lawrence County Judge Dale Freeman (from right) greets State Sen. Robert Thompson and State Rep. James Ratliff prior to Friday's update by the two state legislators.
TD Photo ~ Gretchen Hunt

Chamber hosts state
legislators for update

Gretchen Hunt

State Rep. James Ratliff of Imboden and State Sen. Robert Thompson of Paragould gave a legislative update on Friday at Betty's Buffet and Grill in Walnut Ridge.

The update was hosted by the Lawrence County Chamber of Commerce and was attended by elected officials, business leaders and community members.

Thompson shared information about the new Medicaid privatized option and the Arkansas lottery system, while Ratliff gave updates regarding agriculture and education.

Thompson said all states had a choice of whether to opt into the federal healthcare law with a new Medicaid program.

"Some opted in, and some said no," he said. "I really believed Arkansas would not opt in because I didn't see an appetite to do so, but it was a priority for Gov. Beebe."

He said Beebe met with the federal Department of Health and Human Services and learned that there was another option, to opt in, but to reform Medicaid at the same time.

"That changed the picture," he said. "There was a lot of negotiating and educating of legislators, including myself, but in the end the bipartisan bill passed overwhelmingly."

The new law will provide health insurance to what is referred to as the working poor, a group that previously had no coverage. Those at 138 percent of the federal poverty level, $32,500 for a family of four, will qualify.

"This will greatly impact healthcare providers, primarily rural providers," he said.

As an example, he said Lawrence Memorial Hospital currently loses about $400,000 in uncompensated care annually, mostly through the emergency room. With this additional coverage, the hospital should see that reduced by approximately $195,000.

"With this change, approximately 200,000 more people will have private health insurance," he said.

Ratliff said the state legislature did several things during the session to help farmers.

Examples include a sales tax exemption for hay net wrap, cotton wrap and hay twine and removing sales tax from gas and electricity used for grain drying.

A sales tax exemption for utilities on poultry farms was also approved.

Ratliff said three bills deemed the Livestock Protection Series were also passed. One protects livestock owners and fairs from being sued, another allows for out-of-state extradition of individuals charged with theft by deception relating to the sale of livestock at an auction and the final bill grants a lien on any unpaid cattle sales.

In addition, a bill was passed to add a cattle farmer and a forage farmer to the Arkansas State Plant Board.

Thompson also shared information about the lottery system, stressing that though he voted against the lottery, now that it is in effect he is proud to chair the oversight committee because he wants it to be successful and follow its mission.

He said the amount of money raised through the lottery has decreased as ticket purchases have declined over time.

"The first year we had $110 million to award in scholarships," he said. "This year we had between $85 and $90 million."

This change required a restructuring of the scholarship program. Previous recipients received $4,500 per year if attending a four-year institution and $2,500 per year if attending a two-year college.

New recipients will receive funds as follows: four-year institutions, first year, $2,000, second year, $3,000, third year, $4,000, fourth year, $5,000; two-year institutions, $2,000 both years.

"The longer a student stays in college the more they get," he said. "Usually if a student is not going to make it in college, they drop out early. If they drop out later in their college years it is usually because of money. Hopefully this way money will be less of a concern the longer the student is in college."

He shared some Lawrence County statistics regarding the lottery system including that $10,893,463 has been spent in the county with approximately $7.5 million returned in prizes, the largest of which was $500,000.

In addition, the 12 retailers in the county have been paid over $600,000 to sell the tickets. Since the 2010-11 school year, 604 Lawrence County residents have been awarded scholarships, and 826 Williams Baptist College students have benefited from the program.

Ratliff also shared that there will be $5.2 million in Rural Services grants available in July.

Walnut Ridge Mayor Don House expressed his appreciation to Thompson and Ratliff.

"I believe sincerely that if we had more legislative members like ours down in Little Rock that our legislature would be in far better shape," House said.

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