- Associated Press - Tuesday, August 25, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Gov. Asa Hutchinson announced Tuesday that he has signed a letter asking the Legislature to approve spending about $1 million in rainy day funds on 40 additional workers in the state’s foster care system.

Hutchinson made the announcement at the opening of his “Restore Hope Summit” at the Little Rock Marriott. He called together religious leaders from around the state for the two-day summit to discuss how the faith community can help address issues in the state’s foster care system and with prisoner re-entry efforts.

The request for rainy day funding has to be approved by a legislative committee. Emily Schaal, a spokeswoman for Hutchinson said the proposal will likely go before the Arkansas Legislative Council next month and would begin in the fall if the proposal is approved.

“That is the beginning of the challenge because there is going to be more funding needs that are there,” Hutchinson said. “I’m telling you that the state will do as much as it can, but we’re asking you to supplement that to do more.”

Department of Human Services spokeswoman Amy Webb said the funding would be used to hire 29 caseworkers, four supervisors and seven program assistants. The federal government would provide a 20 percent match of about $260,000.

Schaal called the positions “permanent” and said even though rainy day funds are being sought this year, Hutchinson plans on including the 40 positions in the general fund for next year.

In July, the Child Welfare Policy and Practice Group, which Hutchinson commissioned to review the state’s Division of Children and Family Services, made 11 recommendations including reducing the average caseworker caseload in Arkansas.

To meet the goal of reducing the average caseload from 29 to 20 cases in the next three years, state officials said it would require 200 more employees and an additional $8 million in the agency’s budget.

Webb said the announcement Tuesday is the first step.

“We’ll have to work with the Legislature and the governor to try to figure out in the longer term what our budgets need to look like and what our positions need to look like to reach that goal,” she said.

The announcement comes days after lawmakers signed off on Hutchinson’s request to tap $10 million from rainy day funds to ease prison overcrowding. Hutchinson had requested $7.4 million to open 200 beds at a Pine Bluff prison and $2.6 million to house some inmates at a Texas prison.

Hutchinson noted Arkansas saved $50 million by opting for a prison expansion rather than a new facility and said some of that money could be spent on re-entry efforts. He said 500 beds would be made available for prisoner re-entry assistance, some of which will be ready in the next few weeks, he said.

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