Analysis: Arkansas session becoming known for growing list of task forces to tackle issues

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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Arkansas needs a task force to study the state's obsession with task forces. That may be the only one that hasn't been created yet during the 2015 legislative session.

Forming groups of legislators, policymakers and experts to study a problem in the interim is hardly a new idea, but the grab-bag of task forces that Gov. Asa Hutchinson and lawmakers have launched this year show the growing list of unfinished business they face when the session ends. It also offers a preview of the policy fights lawmakers face in future sessions.

They're hoping to piggyback on the success of other task forces, blue ribbon commissions and other groups that have been formed in recent years. Recent examples include the task force on teacher health insurance whose recommendations led to changes adopted by the state last year to prevent double-digit rate hikes.

When the Legislature wraps up the session — possibly as soon as the end of this month — here are some of the panels that will be taking up their unfinished business in the coming months and the challenges they'll face:

—MEDICAID: The 16-member task force studying Arkansas' "private option" Medicaid expansion is the one that faces the most challenging path. It's charged with finding a consensus on the future of a compromise Medicaid expansion that has sharply divided Republicans as they've become the state's majority party. The task force was a key part of legislation approved last month to continue the private option, which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for low-income residents The legislative panel, which features an even split of supporters and opponents of the private option, is required to come up with a recommendation by the end of the year on alternatives for covering the hundreds of thousands on the program.

—COMMON CORE: The other divisive issue Hutchinson bought more time to address by forming a panel is the future of the controversial Common Core standards in Arkansas' schools. The 16-member commission headed by Republican Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin will recommend whether Arkansas should stick with Common Core, which are math and English benchmarks adopted by a majority of states that describe what students should know after completing each grade. The Obama administration embraced the standards and encouraged states to use them, but Common Core has faced increasing criticism, primarily from conservatives.

—HIGHWAYS: Hutchinson has also said he'll form a "working group" to look at highway funding after a lawmaker dropped his proposal to divert tax revenue from car-related items to the state's road needs. The measure faced objections from Hutchinson and advocacy groups, who said the move would threaten other needs in the state's budget. The group sets the stage for a renewed debate over how to address growing highway needs that are far outpacing revenue from gas and diesel taxes.

—PRISONS: The key bill for Hutchinson's plan to ease the crowding of state inmates at local jails includes the creation of a "Criminal Justice Oversight Task Force" that will track the progress of reforms that are aimed at preventing parolees and probationers from returning to the prison system. The legislation, pending before a House panel, calls for the task force to issue an annual report recommending improvements and detailing savings generated from the overhaul.

—COMPUTER SCIENCE: Hutchinson's campaign promise to expand computer science classes in public high schools also includes a task force. The measure Hutchinson signed into law last month calls for a 15-member task force to study and recommend changes to computer science and technology standards. The panel is also required to come up with recommendations on how to meet the anticipated need for workers skilled in computer science and technology.


Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005. Follow him on Twitter at http://www.twittter.com/ademillo

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