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An Arkansas legislative session full of misplaced priorities

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Communities like Gould, where I am chief of police, need help from lawmakers. But lawmakers delivered very little of what Gould needs: namely jobs, opportunity and meaningful education improvements. Our families and our neighbors are still wondering when they will be the priority of lawmakers.

Gould is a tight-knit community that is used to overcoming adversity. We have been losing population and are searching for ways to rebuild our city. Our average household income of just over $17,000 a year is less than half the state average and less than one-third the national average. Forty-three percent of our residents live below the federal poverty line, more than twice the state average. The real poverty rate of families barely getting by is much higher. Unemployment is a huge problem, as is education. One-fourth of our residents are under 18. Unfortunately, we are not unique in Arkansas.

Lawmakers started the legislative session well enough. The private option health insurance program's renewal and importance cannot be overstated. It provides a significant part of our population with their only access to quality health care.

The governor's original budget was not great for us, but it didn't have much pain, either. But somewhere along the way our leaders lost control. The governor's proposal fell apart. The pragmatic moderation that Arkansas is known for evaporated.

Lawmakers' economic priorities, the most important issue to Gould, were a disaster. The governor's middle class tax cut averages $140 for a person making $35,000 a year, and it doesn't even affect most of our residents.

The working poor in Arkansas pay the highest tax rates in the state and yet they were completely ignored this session. These are the people of Gould and many Arkansas communities. A state-level earned income tax credit would have offered help to working families struggling to get out of poverty, but lawmakers shot it down in favor of big tax cuts for the most well-connected and wealthiest Arkansans instead.

The overall impact of tax cuts this session makes our system less fair for low- and even middle-income families, tilting our system even more in favor of the elite. And they required the governor's budget proposal to be tabled in favor of deep cuts to health clinics, libraries and other things our residents depend on.

Lawmakers put faith in failed trickle-down economics instead of doing what's proven to work. They gave favors to fat cats instead of investing in low- and middle-income families and creating opportunities for working people to get ahead.

But they didn't stop there. Lawmakers also passed a slew of legislation making it harder for working people. They cut unemployment benefits by 20 percent. They weakened workers compensation. They rejected ending the only debtors' prison left in America by continuing to criminalize being late on your rent.

The moderation in the session, aside from the private option, was in what they didn't do. They didn't build a BIG new prison. They didn't pass the worst of the proposals to limit the hours and right to vote. They didn't privatize our education system while gutting the funding to pay for it. They didn't, by a whisker, legalize discrimination and return the state to our darkest past.

It could have been worse, but Arkansas needs more than that.

Education was not given the attention it deserves. The $3 million Arkansas's award-winning pre-K program received is less than one-fifth of what is needed to keep up with inflation. Other proven education reforms like afterschool and summer programs were left unfunded.

They rolled back standards on curriculum, teachers and facilities. They rejected legislation to ensure that money spent to help students in poverty, the vast majority of students in our community, is spent effectively.

How are we going to advance as a state if we don't invest in proven strategies to help our children?

Prison reforms to reduce recidivism, help the mentally ill and focus on the most dangerous criminals were woefully underfunded. Although the governor's plan takes the first steps, it's nowhere near the reform our correction system needs to be cheaper, safer and more effective.

Through the halls at the Capitol our lawmakers had misplaced priorities. The people of my community need better. Arkansas has large gaps in opportunity and we should come together to make an informed plan to solve them. We can move the entire state forward, but we must do it together. Unfortunately, opportunity was never on the table this session.

William El-Amin is co-chair of the Citizens First Congress, a coalition of 58 member organizations who work on social, economic and environmental justice issues elected by their membership.

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