LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas lawmakers on Monday recommended increasing public school spending by between $56.6 million and $78.4 million, but left open the possibility of tweaking that proposal before the Legislature convenes for next year's session.
The House and Senate education committees recommended the funding boost as lawmakers continued work on the state's budget for next year and prepared for an election that could hand Republicans control of the Legislature. Most of the funding increase would go toward the per-student funding that schools receive from the state.
Sen. Jimmy Jeffress, chairman of the Senate committee, told reporters Monday afternoon that he didn't expect lawmakers would increase school funding much more than the lower end of the range recommended. Lawmakers convene for the session in January.
"I just don't think you're going to see very many of the members ready to step up and take that big of a bite and cut somewhere else in order to add that much money to education," Jeffress said.
The panel left open the possibility that it would revisit the range it recommended for "categorical funding," which is money that schools receive primarily for special needs such as students in poverty and students who need an alternative learning environment.
Arkansas is required by its constitution to fund education first, so the recommendation is a key step in the budget talks that began last week. Gov. Mike Beebe is expected to present his budget for the coming year on Nov. 15.
Beebe's office said the governor was not surprised by the panel's recommendation and said he would review it as he works on his budget proposal.
The panel's recommendation to increase the per-student and categorical funding amounts between 1.8 percent and 2.5 percent was based on projected inflation figures presented to legislators. The funding recommendation was part of a report that the Legislature is required by law to issue to define what it costs to provide an adequate education.
The panel approved the recommendation on a voice vote without any objection, but at least one lawmaker said she was worried that the funding increase was based solely on inflation and not any other factors.
"If we're just going to use the inflationary index, why did we spend hours and hours in adequacy committee considering these other factors?" said Rep. Debra Hobbs, R-Rogers.
School funding is one of two major budget questions that the Legislature faces before next year's session. Lawmakers are also waiting on a final estimate on the state's projected shortfall in its Medicaid program. DHS official have said they currently plan on asking for a $358 million increase to cover the shortfall, but said that the number could change before the agency's budget is presented next month.
Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo
Copyright 2012 The Associated Press.