LITTLE ROCK — After hours of debate and testimony, a House committee on Tuesday advanced a bill to allow the merger of Crowley’s Ridge Technical Institute in Forrest City into the neighboring East Arkansas Community College.

In a 12-4 vote, the House Education Committee gave a “do pass” recommendation to House Bill 1543 by Rep. Steve Hollowell, R-Forrest City. The bill goes to the House.

Hollowell told the committee the proposed merger, part of Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s plan for streamlining state government, would save about $1 million a year by consolidating the administration of the schools. He said the bill would not force the schools to merge, noting that the governing boards of both institutions would have to vote to approve the merger before it could be implemented.

Hollowell said the proposed merger would benefit Crowley’s Ridge students by giving them access to more resources and making them eligible to apply for lottery-funded scholarships.

Several students, teachers and administrators of the technical school testified against the bill, and others stood in the hall outside the committee room holding signs stating their opposition.

Jesse Herron, a Crowley’s Ridge student, told the committee a technical school has advantages over a community college.

“A technical school requires you to actually do the work itself and learn to do what you need to do,” he said. “Whenever you’re in a classroom, all you can do is learn the basic concepts and theories of the idea. You can’t actually get out there and have the experience to know how to do it.”

Rep. Stephen Meeks, R-Greenbrier, asked what the likelihood was of the boards voting to approve a merger. Sen. Ronald Caldwell, R-Wynne, a co-sponsor of the bill, said the Crowley’s Ridge board recently voted 3-0, with one member abstaining and one absent, to oppose a merger, but he said the board’s makeup is about to change.

“On July 1 the governor will have another appointment there, and he will have three votes to vote to merge,” he said.

A bill to force the schools to merge failed to win passage in the 2015 legislative session.