Thursday, January 19, 2012

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – In preparation for the fiscal session of the legislature that begins on February 13, the governor presented a balanced budget for state government for next year.

It would not provide cost-of-living increases for state employee salaries. It would increase funding of public schools from kindergarten through grade 12, in order to comply with constitutional mandates that the state provide an adequate education to all children. The governor's budget also would increase funding of Medicaid, a government health care program for people with disabilities, the elderly and the poor.

The governor's proposed budget is very conservative and the legislature will keep it that way. However, the legislature will likely exercise its constitutional power to make changes in the governor's spending plans.

Funding of drug courts is one area of dispute. The 41 drug courts throughout Arkansas have never had a stable and permanent source of funding. Every year or two, legislators find one-time sources of money to keep them operating.

On the second day of budget hearings this year, legislative supporters of drug courts were successful in getting a committee to approve the transfer of $3 million from the Tobacco Settlement Commission to the Department of Community Correction, which administers drug courts. The committee also voted to add two more drug courts to jurisdictions in eastern Arkansas. The governor's administration was against the transfer.

The dispute resulted in a delay in writing a budget for the Community Correction Department. It is one of several budget issues that will be resolved before the conclusion of the fiscal session.

K-12 education stands to receive an additional $56.6 million when the fiscal year begins on July 1. That would bring the state's Public School Fund to about $2 billion. Under the governor's budget, state aid to colleges and universities would increase only slightly - about $3.6 million next year.

State government provides more than $800 million to the 22 two-year colleges in Arkansas, where more than 45,000 students are enrolled, and to the state's 10 four-year universities, where almost 75,000 students are enrolled.

The Department of Human Services is the state's largest agency, with more than 8,300 budgeted positions and a yearly budget of more than $6 billion in combined state and federal funds. The Medicaid program accounts for about $4.3 billion in spending. It provides some form of health coverage to more than a fourth of all Arkansas residents. The governor's budget would increase Medicaid spending next year by $114.3 million.

The State Hospital would receive an additional $2.9 million. It has 226 beds for psychiatric inpatient treatment.

The governor has recommended adding about $7 million to the Correction Department Budget for inmate care and custody, bringing the total in that category to $338 million a year.

The legislature formed a special subcommittee to look into the operations of the state Forestry Commission, which has had to lay off 36 employees and which needs $2.7 million in excess of its previously approved budget in order to pay its bills by the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

In all, during the fiscal session legislators will authorize about $4.7 billion a year in discretionary spending for state government agencies.

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