Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Lindsley Smith's weekly report from the Arkansas legislature for April 11, 2009

Date: April 11, 2009

87th General Assembly in recess after 88 days
Lawmakers have recessed the 87th General Assembly in Little Rock after 88 calendar days with the adoption of the state’s spending plan for the next fiscal year.
The passage of the Revenue Stabilization Act is always one of the last items approved. This year’s primary funding bill sets priorities for $4.4 billion in general revenue to be disbursed to state agencies and programs over the next fiscal year, which starts July 1. The recession dictated much of this year’s session, especially on revenues.
Lawmakers, with the Supreme Court’s edict to make sure public schools remain the state’s top priority, were able to slightly increase funding for K-12 education. Public schools are getting $1.9 billion for the next fiscal year; the Department of Human Services, $1 billion; colleges and universities, $587 million, and the Department of Correction, $287 million. Those needs generally get about 90 percent of state revenue.
Invited by legislative leaders of both chambers to address members, Gov. Mike Beebe in his remarks in the House praised all lawmakers’ work and singled out Speaker of the House Robbie Wills for his leadership and noted the heavy lifting done by the Joint Budget Committee and its co-chairman, Rep. Bruce Maloch of Magnolia. He lamented the difficult decisions faced by lawmakers, especially in bad economic times, when they have to say no to worthy projects.
Speaker Wills closed the session with a rundown of the session’s work. In addressing the House on opening day, Jan. 12, Wills recalled the wooden contraption called a “Do Nothing” and implored lawmakers to work hard and accomplish good things this session. They did, he said on closing day.
Lawmakers in the waning days also approved the General Improvement Fund, which consists of a $300 million surplus of leftover state agency money and earned interest from state accounts. More than one-third of the surplus, or about $100 million, will go to plug holes discovered in the budget late this session. The fund also includes $50 million in a quick-closing account used by the governor to bring jobs to the state. Another $9 million will be used to shore up the State Police retirement system fund.
The House and Senate will get about $30 million each for projects of statewide need, including those at colleges and universities. Funds also will be disbursed to rural fire departments, senior citizen centers, domestic-violence shelters and economic development projects. Those funds will be routed through state agencies on an application basis. The governor gets $65 million for other statewide projects at his discretion.
One of the first major acts approved by the 87th General Assembly was a reduction in the state sales tax on groceries from 3 percent to 2 percent. Arkansas is one of the few states that came into its legislative session this year with a surplus and opened it with a tax cut.
Formal adjournment is set for May 1. Unless there are vetoes to consider or corrections to be made, formal adjournment takes only a matter of minutes and a bang of the Speaker’s gavel will end the session.
Lawmakers also closed the session with a full slate of constitutional amendments for the November 2010 general election. Up to three can be referred, and lawmakers came up with three. They are: a constitutional right to hunt, fish and trap; amending the state’s super-project economic development plan to issue general-obligation bonds to lure employers of any size, subject to the General Assembly’s approval; and a rewriting of the state’s credit and usury limits. Readers can expect much debate on all three of those issues in the coming months.

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