Legislators pass $5.33 billion state funding bill, paves way for special session

by Steve Brawner ([email protected]) 114 views 

The fiscal session moved toward its conclusion Wednesday (May 4) with the passage in the House and Senate of the Revenue Stabilization Act, the funding mechanism that governs how all state general budget dollars are spent.

Next up: a brief fiscal session dealing with highways, levees and more.

The act, which closely resembles a budget presented by Gov. Asa Hutchinson prior to the session, was passed by the Joint Budget Committee and then both the Senate and House.

The $5.33 billion spending bill allocates $5.191 billion in the “A” category and $13.8 million in category A rainy day funds. Another $128 million is allocated in the “B” category, to be funded if money is available, which is expected to be the case. The act includes neither a surplus nor a deficit.

The $5.33 billion budget represents a $142.7 million increase, or 2.75%, from the $5.19 billion budgeted for 2015-16.

The bill allocates $2.188 billion to the Public School Fund and $1.445 billon to the Department of Human Services, both increases from 2015-16. The state’s institutions of higher education were allocated $733.6 million, the same as last year. The Department of Correction was funded the same amount in category A as it was funded last year, $336.7 million, with another $4.1 million added in category B.

The Senate approved the measure, 25-6, with four not voting. The House approved its identical version, 85-7, with six voting present and two not voting. The two chambers will vote on each other’s versions Thursday, sending them to the governor’s desk and effectively ending the session.

Including money in the rainy day fund paves the way for general revenues to be used for the first time to fund highways. Hutchinson plans to call a special session to find approximately $50 million in existing funds for highways next fiscal year to become eligible for a $200 million annual federal match.

Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, said afterward that the special session is expected to occur during the week of May 16-20. The goal will be to get in and out in three days.

“Just because necessarily a member thinks it has to be run right now doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be run right now,” he said. “So we’re going to have to vet out the time sensitiveness of those because we don’t want a general session to occur here in May.”

Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, plans to run a bill meant to reconstitute the state’s defunct levee boards. A number of levee boards in Arkansas have become defunct. Under the legislation, county judges would be able to appoint members to those boards.

Rapert said in Perry County, the levee board had been defunct for nearly 50 years. It was reconstituted after last year’s flooding, but the task was difficult because of confusing state language regarding the process.

The legislation also will allow the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission to monitor the state’s levees, a task now neglected. Under the legislation, reports by levee boards that are given to county clerks would also have to be sent to the commission.

Rapert said larger levee reforms could be considered in 2017.

Also, Gillam said legislators may make technical corrections to a law regarding securities firms’ hiring practices. He said legislators may try to create “efficiencies” by combining various task forces. Juvenile justice may be another topic considered. He does not expect any health care items to be considered.

Also Wednesday, the Senate elected Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, to another term. He was unopposed on the floor.