Arkansas lawmakers give budget final OK

Associated Press Writer
Published Thursday, April 09, 2009

LITTLE ROCK Lawmakers approved Arkansas' $4.5 billion spending plan for the upcoming year on Wednesday, giving the final nod to a budget that relies on a third of the state's surplus to pay for a funding shortfall in some state programs.

The House and Senate gave unanimous approval to identical versions of the Revenue Stabilization and General Improvement bills, the last steps before they head to the governor's desk.

The Revenue Stabilization bill sets the state's spending priorities based on expected revenue, while the General Improvement bill lays out plans for spending the surplus. About $100 million of that one-time money is slated to go toward plugging funding gaps in Arkansas' budget.

The bills are typically the last major measures the Legislature takes up before recessing. Both chambers plan to recess Thursday and return to the Capitol in May to formally adjourn.

The spending plan relies on more one-time money than originally proposed by Gov. Mike Beebe, who earlier in the session told lawmakers he'd likely ask for up to $60 million to plug holes in the budget. That number rose after state finance officials lowered their estimates on how much revenue the state would see next year by more than $100 million.

"It's a lot easier to get about the business of government when you've got $300 million on the plus side," Senate President Bob Johnson told reporters Wednesday.

Senators also unanimously approved the billion-dollar budget for the state Education Department, which had been temporarily stalled by a lawmaker pushing for a change in the state's school consolidation law.

Earlier Wednesday, the Senate Education Committee again rejected the proposal by Rep. Buddy Lovell of Marked Tree to change the way school enrollment is counted by the state.

Under current law, a district can be consolidated if its enrollment falls below 350 students two years in a row, but a district's fourth-quarter numbers aren't counted. Lovell's bill would have counted all four quarters potentially giving at-risk schools more time to boost their enrollment.

State education officials and Beebe had opposed Lovell's proposal, saying it would be a retreat from reforms enacted in response to a long-running school funding case.

Lawmakers on the panel said the way the state counts enrollment may need to be discussed when the Legislature studies what constitutes an adequate education after the session. They said that making the change without that study could land them back in court.

"If he's going to court, he's got to have something to represent us with," Sen. Shane Broadway said, gesturing to assistant attorney general Scott Richardson.

Lovell said afterward that he'll press for the adequacy study to include a look at the effects of consolidating small school districts around the state.

"We're going to put questions on there to see what is the result of consolidation," Lovell said after the vote. "If it did right for the kids, if it hurt the kids, if it changed anything for the district. We're going to find out what the result of consolidation is."

The House also approved the $88 million budget for the Department of Higher Education, despite some lawmakers' concerns over a raise of nearly $50,000 for the agency's director.

The House on Wednesday voted 76-18 in favor of the agency's budget for the next fiscal year. The bill includes a salary increase for director Jim Purcell, bumping it to $185,000 from its current $136,615.

Some members argued against the budget, saying it was irresponsible for the Legislature to approve the pay increase while companies are closing and people are being laid off. The salary increase was backed by Beebe.

The higher education budget also includes $64 million in college scholarships.

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