The 88th General Assembly convened for its second fiscal session with a call from Gov. Mike Beebe (D) for quick work and strict attention to budgetary matters.
“It is my job to propose and your job to dispose,” Beebe said in acknowledging that the legislature has the power over the state’s purse-strings. “I want you to be out of here as soon as you want to be out of here, obviously after doing the people’s business.”
The legislature has 30 days to take care of its budgeting process for the 2013 fiscal year, which kicks in on July 1, 2012. The $4.6 billion state revenue budget swells to nearly $24 billion when federal funds are factored in.
Beebe’s proposed budget calls for expanding public education funding by $56 million and the Medicaid program by $114 million. He has proposed other cuts in state government to diminish the overall expense growth.
He called for lawmakers to also deal with a number of sprouting budget problems that have evolved in the interim, including court funding, the Forestry Commission, and public safety and public employees merit pay. Legislators will be eyeing more than $72 million in a budget surplus to pay for as much as $30 million in supplemental appropriation requests.
Beebe asked for a limit to the non-budget bills, which include possible consideration of changes to parole limits for sex offenders, repeal of a yet-to-be-enacted truckers’ tax, possible federal balanced budget proposal, and a Medicaid fraud reform measure.
“There my be some other items that members have suggested. I’ve tried to be understanding,” Beebe said. “Let’s keep [the agenda] as limited as possible and do it in a way that doesn’t break the spirit of the session.”
Beebe called on cooperation during the next 30 days — a reference to the narrow margins that separate Democrats and Republicans in the House and Senate. Democrats hold slim majorities of 54-46 in the House and 20-15 in the Senate.
“When you disagree, do it agreeably. When you want to solve a problem, you try to build a consensus. And when you go home, you’re all charged with making Arkansas a better place,” Beebe said.
Lawmakers reacted to Beebe’s speech favorably, while some advocated for a tighter budget than the Governor’s proposal and others expressed concern to opening the fiscal session up to other business.
Senate President Pro Temp Paul Bookout (D-Jonesboro) said, “I think its extremely important, I think he reiterated the issues that we have before us and the budget matters and challenges we have to deal with. Let’s remember that’s what we’re down here for.”
Bookout said he would be hesitant to open the session up to non-fiscal issues. “This isn’t supposed to be a mini-regular session,” Bookout said. “There could be possibly an issue or two out there,” he added in reference to the looming non-budget related items.
House Speaker Robert Moore (D-Arkansas City) said he didn’t want to “re-invent the wheel” and hoped lawmakers would take care of budget matters with few non-fiscal measures.
“It’s clear that voters want us to come up here, focus on the business at hand, and get out of here,” Moore said.
Sen. Missy Irvin (R-Mountain View), who has championed more scrutiny of the Forestry Commission’s budget woes, was optimistic that a longer-term solution could be found for the agency’s troubled finances.
“I appreciate all of the creative ideas. There’s a lot of solutions on the table and a lot of bipartisan work that’s gone into it,” she said.
House Minority Leader John Burris (R-Harrison) said he didn’t think voters wanted legislators to rush through their budget business, but he also didn’t expect the session to run over it’s alloted schedule. He said that there would be time taken with key budgets and much debate on several contentious issues.
Burris and Senate Minority Whip Michael Lamoureaux (R-Russellville) have filed companion alternative bills to Joint Budget Co-chair Rep. Kathy Webb’s (D-Little Rock) Revenue Stabilization Act, which will outline the state’s budget priorities for the next fiscal year.
Burris said he expects the Republican alternative to offer “less spending,” ultimately producing a slightly smaller state budget option for lawmakers to consider.
“We need to go ahead and trim the budget for what we know will be even more funding issues with Medicaid in the future,” said Burris. “We’ll figure out where the smart cuts are and where we can reasonably save.”
Burris originally advocated this “sharper knife” approach to the state budget in a Talk Business interview earlier this month.
He said GOP leaders had identified possible spending cut alternatives, but would not offer more details until the end of the week. A recent discovery of a half million dollars in the Department of Agriculture to restore some Forestry Commission cuts sparked the latest scrutiny, Burris said.
“I think that very much underscored our argument,” he added.