Friday, February 12, 2010

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – Although the fiscal session will be much shorter than regular legislative sessions, in some ways it promises to be very similar.

As is customary in regular sessions, most of the action during the first week of the fiscal session took place in committee. The full Senate did little more than pass a few resolutions and amend a few bills in preparation for this week, when the floodgates will open and bills will be approved by the dozen. By the end of this week the legislature will likely have passed a couple of hundred budget bills.

At the close of business last week, 281 separate bills had been filed. Each was an appropriation to authorize spending by a state agency or an institution of higher education. Senate Bill 120 was one of the largest spending bills. It appropriates almost $2.7 billion in aid to local school districts.

SB 120 includes state aid for all the various functions that allow public schools to provide an adequate education.

In addition to foundation funding, SB 120 has funding for teacher health insurance, free and reduced price lunches for students from poor families, long distance learning and computer hookups, special education, classes for troubled adolescents in juvenile detention facilities, teacher training and recruitment, advanced placement testing and bonus funding for schools in isolated, rural areas. The 18-page bill includes dozens of other spending categories.

Legislators have been working on the school funding bill for weeks, since budget hearings in January.

Lawmakers also have been preparing budgets for the other major areas of state government: the Department of Human Services, the Health Department, the Correction Department and publicly supported colleges and universities.

As expected, only two non-budget bills have been proposed during the fiscal session. One is the Revenue Stabilization Act, which is the state's balanced budget law. The other is a measure to set lottery scholarship amounts. Eligible students at four-year universities would get $5,000 a year, beginning in the 2010-2011 school year. Students at two-year colleges would get $2,500.

Actual bills for the Revenue Stabilization Act and the lottery scholarships had not officially been introduced. The Senate adopted resolutions allowing their introduction, which is the necessary first step required by Amendment 86 to the Arkansas Constitution.

Amendment 86 was approved by voters in the general election of 2008. It requires the legislature to meet in fiscal sessions in even-numbered years. Until this year the legislature convened every other year, in odd-numbered years, and wrote state agency budgets that covered two years of spending. That was known as a biennial budget cycle. Thanks to Amendment 86, Arkansas will now have an annual budget cycle.

Arkansas had been one of six states that met every two years and enacted biennial budgets. The others are Montana, Nevada, North Dakota, Oregon and Texas.

The trend nationwide has been to change from biennial to annual sessions. In 1940 there were 44 states that met every other year and now there are only five.

Besides appropriating money for the major agencies, the legislature will also enact budgets for dozens of relatively smaller agencies such as the Parks and Tourism Department and the State Police.

No comments: