Budget bills advance, anti-affirmative action bill beat on House floor

by Roby Brock ([email protected]) 2,451 views 

In the surest sign yet that state lawmakers may conclude their business on Friday, bills to allocate Arkansas’ $6.2 billion budget and another $1.5 billion in surplus funds moved forward Wednesday (April 5).

The Revenue Stabilization Act, which prioritizes the distribution of state general revenue and maintains a balanced budget, advanced from the Joint Budget Committee. The RSA is contained in SB569 and HB1833 and provides funding for general and higher education, human services, corrections, and other state agencies. The spending outlined is roughly $177 million above last year’s total.

In an additional measure, SB578, spending is detailed for a variety of surplus funds. The bill allocates spending roughly $1.5 billion of money already set aside or expected to be set aside by the end of the state’s fiscal year on June 30, 2023. Some of the projects detailed include:

  • $250 million for educational facilities
  • $330 million for correctional facilities to build a new state prison
  • $200 million for a new State Crime Lab building
  • $200 million for grants from the federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act
  • $50 million for UAMS’ National Cancer Institute designation effort
  • $40 million for the state’s Historic Rehabilitation trust fund
  • $37.5 million for public school safety projects created by LEARNS
  • $12 million for teacher academy scholarships created by LEARNS
  • $15 million for education freedom accounts created by LEARNS
  • $12 million for a Charter School Revolving Loan program created by LEARNS
  • $12 million for south Arkansas hospital expansion led by UAMS
  • $35 million for the Quick Action Closing Fund for economic development projects
  • $40 million for food insecurity and health needs

The first Restricted Reserve Fund allocates $1,152,227,257 in spending, while a second reserve fund spells out spending maximums of $380,643,588 for some of the same projects in the first fund. The two funds offer some flexibility to lawmakers for deciding where to pull money when the time comes to approve surplus spending after session.

SB578 passed the Senate on Wednesday and will be considered by the House.

Wednesday’s legislative action also saw the advancement of SB549, the tax cut plan agreed to by Gov. Sarah Sanders and legislative leaders. It provides for $124 million in tax cuts by lowering the top individual income tax rate from 4.9% to 4.7% in the current calendar year. It also reduces the state’s corporate income tax rate from 5.3% to 5.1%.

The measure passed the House of Representatives 85-12 and now heads to the governor’s desk for signature.

SB495, the Protect Arkansas Act, which details an overhaul of the state’s sentencing ranges, changes the state’s parole system, and creates a task force to study recidivism, cleared a House Judiciary panel. It heads to the full House for a vote. The bill is part of Gov. Sanders’ criminal justice reform package, which also includes building a new $330 million state prison to handle overcrowding.

SB71, a measure that has been touted by supporters as ending affirmative action in state government and higher education institutions, was defeated on the House floor late Wednesday night. The bill, which has been mired in controversy all session, was debated for more than a half hour before failing 27-51 on a vote. There was bipartisan opposition to the bill that many opponents complained would eliminate or restrict state programs aimed at minority teacher recruitment, women and minority health, and women and minority business initiatives.