Arkansas lawmakers close on $6 billion budget, Hester elected Senate leader

by Marine Glisovic ([email protected]) 707 views 

The Arkansas Legislature wrapped up its fiscal session business on Tuesday (March 8) by passing a $6 billion budget that will provide more funding for schools, human services and public safety.

The Arkansas House and Senate approved identical versions of the proposed Revenue Stabilization Law, SB101 and HB1117. The bill calls for a nearly 3% increase in state spending. Earlier this year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed a 3.3% increase, or $194.6 million, in spending.

Most of the spending increases will go toward public schools and the Arkansas Department of Human Services, including Medicaid funding.

On Monday (March 7), the Senate voted 35-0 to approve SB101 and sent it to the House for further action. Meanwhile, the House voted 95-1 and sent HB1117 to the Senate. On Tuesday, the Senate passed HB1117 unanimously, while the House passed SB101 on a 97-1 vote.

Under the proposal, $2.3 billion will be allocated to K-12 public schools, an increase of $69.6 million or 3.1%, according to Bureau of Legislative Research (BLR) records. DHS will be allocated $1.8 billion; however, most of that funding will go toward Medicaid to the tune of $1.4 billion, an increase of $26.6 million or 1.7%.

The legislature also allocated $775 million to Higher Education, a $12.9 million increase, according to BLR records.

Lawmakers also tackled approving funding for a prisons and county jails, which included appropriating or approving spending authority of up to $75 million to expand operations at the state’s North Central Unit in Calico Rock. Last month, the governor called for using the state’s surplus to add nearly 500 additional beds to the expansion.

Money from the state’s projected surplus is expected to be used to expand Calico Rock, although Legislative Council would need to approve the spending first.

As part of the Revenue Stabilization Act, lawmakers will transfer $150 million from the general revenue allotment reserve fund to the restricted reserve fund to pay for various improvement projects including the prison expansion and infrastructure upgrades at the Arkansas School for the Deaf and the Arkansas School for the Blind.

Arkansas county jails will also see a $6.4 million increase in reimbursements for temporarily housing state inmates. The daily rate will increase from $32 a day per inmate to $40.

According to BLR, the state’s surplus at the end of the fiscal year is projected to be $600 million.

In other business, the Arkansas Senate elected Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, as the new President Pro Tem for the 94th Arkansas General Assembly, which begins in January 2023.

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, and Senate President Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, have said they plan to sine die on March 15. According to House rules, 15 minutes after sine die, the House will elect a new House Speaker. Shepherd has expressed that he wants to continue serving. If elected, it will be his third full term as speaker.

Editor’s note: Marine Glisovic is a senior political reporter for KATV News, a content partner with Talk Business & Politics.