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Arkansas governor supports prison expansion; says COVID deaths will soon reach 10,000

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Sign language interpreter Eddie Schmeckenbecher, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Arkansas Department of Corrections Secretary Solomon Graves listen to a question during Thursday's press conference.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Thursday he supports a plan to add 498 beds to Arkansas' prison system. The estimated $60 million to $100 million cost would be covered by the state’s budget surplus, he said, and must be approved by the Legislature.

Hutchinson said during his weekly press briefing that the prison system experienced an “artificial drop” in prison population because of COVID-19, but projections show prison growth of 1.4% per year in the coming years. He also said the state has to do more to relieve the number of state prisoners now being held in county jails.

The proposed expansion of the Arkansas Department of Correction’s (ADC) North Central Unit near Calico Rock has been approved by the Board of Corrections. Hutchinson said he agrees with the recommendation and will seek approval when lawmakers convene the state’s fiscal session that begins on Monday.

“We want this on the table when the fiscal session begins,” Hutchinson said.

The funding amount is uncertain because architectural, construction and other details are not yet known, but Hutchinson said the expansion will not exceed $100 million. ADC Secretary Solomon Graves said if the plan is funded, construction could begin in the first half of 2023.

Continued gains in sales tax revenue helped push Arkansas’ fiscal year-to-date (July 2021 to January 2022) tax revenue up 5.9%. That has resulted in a $231.2 million surplus for the state above the budget expectation, according to a Feb. 2 report from the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration (DFA). The state ended fiscal year 2021 (July 2020 – June 2021) with a revenue surplus of $945.7 million thanks in part to the COVID-19 induced shift in a tax filing deadline from June to January that pushed some of fiscal 2020 income tax payments into 2021.

COVID DEATHS

The Arkansas Department of Health (ADH) on Thursday reported 1,825 new known cases, bringing the cumulative total to 802,198. Known active cases fell by 2,790 to 24,274, considerably lower than the 101,141 on Jan. 21 when known active cases first topped 100,000.

COVID hospitalizations fell by 66 to 1,285. Patients on ventilators fell by 5 to 186, and deaths rose by 10 to 9,937. Known deaths as of Thursday were up 7.5% from the 9,248 as of Jan. 4. Available ICU beds totaled 37 in Thursday’s report, up from 34 on Wednesday, according to the ADH report.

Gov. Hutchinson said while active cases are on the decline, deaths are a lagging indicator and expects they will continue to rise.

“Unfortunately our deaths continue to go up, and it will not be very many days until we reach the 10,000 mark in terms of Arkansans who have died as a result of COVID,” he said.

The ADH data also showed that 82.4% of deaths and 81.3% of hospitalizations were among the unvaccinated.

The text of this report was prepared by Michael Tilley of Talk Business & Politics, the audio of the live radio broadcast was anchored by KUAR's Michael Hibblen.