Hutchinson said Legislature didn’t support spending surplus on teacher raises

(The Center Square) – Arkansas legislators designated a $1.6 billion surplus for tax breaks and school safety grants but did not take up teacher pay raises in a special session that ended Thursday.

Arkansas Democrats introduced a bill that would have used $600 million of the surplus to raise starting teachers’ salaries from $36,000 to $42,000. It was not voted on during the session.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said he didn’t have the support from lawmakers to use the funds for teacher pay raises.

“I’ve learned as governor that you have to have partners in this business and the Legislature is partner with me and you listen to them and many times there’s a lot of wisdom in what they say,” Hutchinson said at a news conference on Thursday. “It makes a lot of sense that you have the Adequacy Review and that it is addressed next January. I have confidence that it will be addressed next January.”

The House and Senate Education Committees agreed to an educational adequacy study in January. The study is reviewing how much money is spent on education, according to information from the Legislature. Arkansas spent $7,182 per student last year, which ranks 48th in the nation. The state will spend $7,349 per student for the 2022-2023, according to the Legislature.

The estimated completion date for the study is Nov. 1.

Hutchinson signed a bill Thursday that rolls back the state income tax rate to 4.9%, the lowest rate in Arkansas history. The state first enacted an income tax in 1929 at a rate of 5%.

“This tax relief package that has just been enacted takes over $400 million from the state coffers and puts it in individual Arkansans’ pockets,” Hutchinson said. “That is a transfer of wealth from the government to the taxpayer, and it could not come at a more important time.”

The governor also signed a bill creating $50 million in grants for school safety. The newly reinstated School Safety Commission released its preliminary report with several recommendations including an armed presence at schools and more funding for mental health programs. 

“When parents drop their children off at school, they want to have confidence their children are going to be safe,” Hutchinson said. “This $50 million grant program for local school districts will allow schools to implement some of the one-time recommendations that come out of the School Safety Commission.”

The grants will be available this school year after the Department of Education drafts the rules and they are reviewed by the Legislature, Hutchinson said.