Time, Money and Politics Are Driving Budget Debate

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 145 views 

They will haggle over money this week, but political willpower and a tricky parliamentary timetable will impose arbitrary deadlines that could lead to a quick deal or a longer stalemate.

Late last week, Republican legislative leaders offered a counter-proposal to Gov. Mike Beebe’s (D) proposed balanced budget. The GOP plan calls for a $14 million shift in Medicaid spending, 3% general revenue cuts to 11 state agencies, and a restoration of funding at the Department of Corrections.

The difference between the Governor and legislative Republicans is $21 million from Beebe’s projected state budget that totaled nearly $4.72 billion.

Led by the Arkansas Republicans’ version of Paul Ryan, the budget point man in the U.S. House, Rep. John Burris (R-Harrison) says the GOP proposal is “reasonable” and “achievable” and is not an attempt to “starve” state government.

“Starving would be a little dramatic. I’d just say you don’t get two desserts,” Burris said in a Talk Business interview. He warns that the belt-tightening proposed by his caucus now is just a precursor for hundreds of millions of dollars of funding shortfalls anticipated by a looming Medicaid crisis in the near future.

The Governor and Democratic budget leaders were quick to raise red flags with the Republican plan suggesting it was “arbitrary” and didn’t offer specific line-item cuts.

Burris, the Minority Leader of the 46 GOP House members, said he wants agency directors to unearth specific savings in their budgets, not legislators.

“That’s really not the legislature’s job. We’re not the managers. Somebody gets paid good money to sit over there and manage that agency with the funding levels we provide. Our job is to fund. We’re simply proposing that we do it with a little bit less and ask them to do more with a little bit less,” Burris said.

Senate Majority Leader Robert Thompson (D-Paragould) said he’s skeptical that the GOP plan won’t lead to layoffs and program cuts like the ruckus recently raised by the Forestry Commission when it revealed a $3 million funding shortfall that led to 36 proposed worker layoffs.

“It’s going to take some convincing for me to know why a budget that is essentially already flat needs to be trimmed further, especially when those reductions are going to cause reductions in ongoing programs,” Thompson said.

Burris says he’s willing to compromise. “We’re not going to leave without a budget,” he said in a Monday press conference with reporters. “The Governor’s plan is not perfect, ours may not be. There’s room for improvement.”

Democrats and allies of the Governor may not be so amenable. In two confirmed text messages sent from House Speaker Robert Moore (D-Arkansas City) and intended, but not delivered, to the Governor’s chief of staff Morril Harriman, Moore said:

(may have already received this. Not sure on other # I have for u.) Below fyi from dem caucus mbrs. Frustration abounds but whatever play qb gov wants to run dems r going to execute. Enjoying wkend at new homestead n ar city! Have fun. C u mon. Robert

Hearing from members ….  They don’t want budget amended. They don’t want JB to get any leverage out of this. If Gov finds 1 m they will say DFA should have found it earlier and they will play it as poor budgeting. Want us to stay firm with JBC RSA.  Thanks.

In short, Moore’s two messages convey his reading that House Democrats intend to stay with the Governor’s balanced budget proposal and that they don’t want House Republicans or Burris “to get any leverage” out of a deal.  Talk Business blogger Jason Tolbert first reported on the text messages.

Other House Democrats have confirmed in private conversations that they are “not willing to give an inch” at this time. While objections exist over the proposed GOP cuts, there is also debate over the timing and form of the Republican plan.

Joint Budget Co-chair Rep. Kathy Webb (D-Little Rock) called Burris’ move “partisan” and said Republicans could have engaged earlier in the process through pre-session budget hearings.

Burris counters that the fiscal session offers a variety of points to engage and that the timing of his caucus’s plan allows plenty of time for debate and still offers an opportunity for bipartisan consensus to be reached.

Governor Beebe is expected to roll out responses from agencies on Tuesday (Feb. 21) outlining what the GOP cuts would mean to the different budgets targeted in Burris’ GOP plan.

In accommodating the Republican requests, many of the agency recommendations are expected to result in layoffs, program reductions or location closures.

A number of rigid and arbitrary deadlines are likely to create some dramatic moments and attempts at compromise as early as Thursday of this week.

Monday, Feb. 27 is the deadline for filing non-budget bills, which the Revenue Stabilization Act (RSA) would be. A resolution to allow that bill to be filed (by either party) will require a two-thirds vote of the House and the Senate. With current margins, neither Democrats nor Republicans have the votes to meet that threshold without a compromise.

To meet Monday’s deadline, the House would need to pass its resolution allowing an RSA bill by Thursday so that the Senate could pass it on Friday. That would permit an RSA bill to be filed by the Monday deadline.

However, using parliamentary maneuvers, the House could wait as late as Monday afternoon to pass the resolution. Then the Senate would have to suspend its rules to consider and pass it that same day, thus allowing the Monday deadline for filing the RSA bill to be met.

A third and final scenario provides even more time.

While it requires a two-thirds vote to pass the resolution to allow for the RSA bill, it also takes two-thirds of both chambers to “suspend the rules” and allow special business to be conducted. It’s a convoluted process, but if two-thirds exist for the resolution, then two-thirds likely exist to suspend the rules. That would allow Democratic and Republican leadership to fight beyond the Monday, Feb. 27 deadline and suspend the rules to take care of the budget business at a later date.

We’re likely to see movement toward a compromise as each of the first two scenarios approach, but don’t be surprised if the final scenario becomes the one that plays out.

Another factor that could muck up the possibilities even further: on Thursday (Feb. 23), filing period for political office opens. Legislators worried about potential back-home rivals could seek a quicker compromise if they sense the conflict at the state capitol is hurting public perception in their hometowns.