One of Arkansas’s leading advocacy groups for children and low-income people is gearing up for next month’s legislative session. Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families on Thursday in Little Rock held the last of three pre-legislative conferences hosted throughout the state. Expanding access to pre-K and reforming the juvenile justice system were among a slew of issues in which AACF's staff and guest speakers briefed attendees.
These priorities are all subject to the changing politics at the Capitol. Voters soundly rejected one of pre-K expansion’s biggest advocates, Democratic gubernatorial nominee Mike Ross. Arkansas’s Democrats have traditionally carried the torch for pre-K expansion and their numbers in the state House and Senate plummeted after the midterm election.
During the campaign now-Governor-elect Asa Hutchinson at times indicated he believed existing state programs should be fully-funded. But even the most uncompromising of gubernatorial support would be tasked with convincing a legislature with a recent history of declining funding increases. State Senator Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) has been unable to garner even relatively small cost of living increases for the existing program in multiple attempts as a member of the outgoing 89th General Assembly.
AACF Executive Director Rich Huddleston is undaunted by the changed political landscape. He said the organization still thinks the time is right to lobby for some type of expansion of the state’s pre-K programs. Huddleston said highlighting what asserts are the long-term economic benefits of pre-K expansion could help persuade newly-expanded Republican majorities.
“They [business interests] understand that pre-K is the first step in terms of having a well-qualified workforce. We need to do a better job of making sure those business voices get heard, we need to do better there. But I think if you look at the research and look at the numbers, a high quality pre-K is easily justifiable as one of the best investments that you can make. It’s our job to make sure that legislators hear that,” said Huddleston.
Juvenile justice reform is an issue that Huddleston thinks could show movement. He points to Governor-elect Hutchinson as a reason to be optimistic.
“I think it’s very encouraging that one of the first thing’s he’s done as Governor-elect is go visit the juvenile facility in Alexander. I also think he understands that it costs a lot more to put a kid in a secure confinement, high security facility than it does to put kids in community based programs. Which quite frankly are not only a lot cheaper but they’re much more effective,” said Huddleston.
AACF will operate under new lobbying rules passed by voters in November as part of the multi-faceted Issue Three. Huddleston said he is hopeful that new restrictions on lobbying and gifts – though not all encompassing - will help level the playing field between AACF and more well-financed corporate lobbyists.