Friday, January 14, 2011

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – It didn't take long for the first dispute of the 88th General Assembly to surface.

Freshmen legislators took their oaths of office on Monday. On Thursday the House of Representatives sent the General Appropriation bill back to committee, rather than approve it and send it to the Senate. It was a signal that this legislative session will not be "business as usual."

The General Appropriation bill, which is House Bill 1063, has salaries for constitutional officers, legislators, judges and prosecutors. The bill is sponsored by the Joint Budget Committee, which is common for spending bills.

A sufficient number of House members objected to pay raises in the bill for judges and prosecutors. Legislators on the Joint Budget Committee who helped write the bill had agreed to forego a salary increase for themselves and for constitutional officers. But they felt prosecutors and judges should receive a 1.86 percent pay raise and they put those salaries in the bill.

However, in large part because members objected to the pay raises, the bill took a step backward when it came up on the House agenda. It was sent back to the Joint Budget Committee. The next round of this dispute will take place in Joint Budget, which must decide whether or not to keep the raises in the bill.

In a typical session the legislature votes on 700 separate spending bills known as appropriations.

With their action on HB 1603, a faction of legislators who want to hold down spending has made a show of strength that will be remembered when those 700 appropriations come up for a vote.

The opening ceremonies during the first week of every session include a speech by the governor in which he outlines his legislative agenda. The governor always uses the opportunity to define the major themes of the session, and this year the governor said that spending and tax cuts will be dominant issues.

To hold down the cost of housing inmates in state prisons, the administration is writing bills to reflect the findings of a recent study that recommends more efficient use of parole and probation officers to supervise non-violent offenders.

The governor also proposed changes in Medicaid reimbursement methods, to prevent a potential funding crisis in that program next year.

The balanced budget proposed by the governor reflects a half cent reduction in the state sales tax on groceries, which would lower state government revenues by about $20 million. The governor says that the legislature can reduce grocery taxes and still maintain state government services at current levels.

However, he said in his speech to the Senate and the House that if legislators enact additional tax cuts on top of his proposed cut in the food tax, they would have to cut government spending somewhere.

Actually, the governor began presenting his agenda in October when legislative budget hearings began. That was when each state agency outlined its spending requests for next fiscal year. In the next couple of months those request will come up for a vote.

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