Thursday, February 2, 2012

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – When the governor presented his requests for supplemental appropriations, the legislature got a clear picture of its agenda for the fiscal session that begins on February 13.

As mandated by the constitution, the fiscal session will focus almost entirely on budget issues. A few legislators have said they hope to introduce a couple of non-budget bills, but under the constitution it will require strong support from a solid majority of lawmakers for the measures to be filed.

During the fiscal session, legislators will approve state agency budgets for Fiscal Year 2013, which begins on July 1 of this year. The vast majority of budgets are non-controversial and will authorize slight increases in spending over the current year. Spending from the general revenue fund is projected to total $4.7 billion and the governor has proposed a 3.5 percent increase, which means authorizing about $163 million in additional spending.

The additional spending, under the governor's plan would be mainly in the Medicaid program. It would receive about $114 million of next year's increase. Public schools from kindergarten through grade 12 would get $56.6 million of the increase. Some institutions of higher education would get $3.62 million in additional funding, but not every campus would get an increase under the governor's proposed budget.

After he presented a proposed budget for Fiscal Year 2013, the governor next presented a series of proposed supplemental appropriations, totaling $30.5 million. They would authorize spending by certain state agencies between now and the end of the fiscal year on June 30.

The most highly publicized supplemental appropriation is the governor's $2.7 million request for the Forestry Commission, which has had to lay off 34 employees and is unable to fill two other positions that were vacated when employees retired.

The agency relies on revenue from a severance tax on timber, which has declined because of a slump in construction. Its budget shortfall is a matter of concern in rural areas because 20 of the laid off employees work in fire protection.

It's also a matter of concern to lawmakers who believe the Forestry Commission's budget woes are due to mismanagement. Those legislators are reluctant to authorize additional funding unless they have assurances it will be spent wisely. Auditors are looking into the financial practices of the Forestry Commission and their report is due before the fiscal session begins.

Another supplemental appropriation requested by the governor would provide about $9 million to the Correction Department, which runs state prisons, so it can pay security officers overtime and the pay they accumulated over the holidays. Another $2 million supplemental would allow the department to reimburse county jails that have been housing inmates when state prison units are full. Also, the department would get a $1.4 million supplemental for a barracks in Little Rock to house prisoners whose work detail is in the capital city.

The Department of Community Correction, which also works with convicted inmates, would get $1.9 million for drug treatment, more electronic monitors, mental health treatment and reducing the case loads of parole officers.

About $3.4 million in supplemental funding would go to the State Hospital, a facility in Little Rock that houses and treats people with mental illnesses. The money would help bring the hospital up to national standards and ensure that it continues to receive federal funding.

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