The Legislature’s fiscal session is supposed to be all about the state budget, so much so that approval by a two-thirds majority in the House and Senate chambers is required to even consider unrelated bills.
While the bulk of the debate this session is expected to center on Arkansas’ so-called "private option" for expanding health insurance coverage and its impact on the state’s $5 billion budget if it is not reauthorized, some unrelated budget bills are being drafted.
The fiscal session began at noon on Monday. The Joint Budget Committee met at 2 p.m. to begin considering state agency budget bills, many of them prefiled.
"My hope is that we are able to finish the business within three weeks. Of course, the health care issue is the elephant in the room, so we have to deal with that," said House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot. "It’s either going to go very smoothly or very rough. I don’t think there’s any in between. Once we get the health care issue — the private option deal — decided, then everything else should fall into place."
He said he hopes the Legislature can vote on the private option during the second week of the session.
One proposed bill that is unrelated to the budget but appears to have support among lawmakers would change state law to avoid the need for a special election to replace former Lt. Gov. Mark Darr.
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, said last week that he also has a bill ready that would abolish the state Board of Private Investigators and Private Security Agencies, and allow the state police to design the training program and license school personnel who want to carry weapons on campus.
Hutchinson said he has the support of the Senate Judiciary Committee and plans to discuss the proposal with lawmakers to see if he can get the supermajority necessary to get the issue on the fiscal session agenda.
"There’s obviously a lot of other legislators I need to visit with, so I’ll be doing that when we come to town Monday," Hutchinson said.
Gov. Mike Beebe’s proposed balanced budget for the 2014-15 fiscal year, which begins July 1, was presented to the Joint Budget Committee in January and includes about $89 million in savings from the private option.
The proposed budget also takes into consideration about $85 million in tax cuts the Legislature approved last year that go into effect in the coming fiscal year. The Legislature approved 11 separate tax cuts totaling about $140 million in three years. About $10 million in cuts took effect Jan. 1, while $85 million take effect July 1.
During the 2013 session, leaders of the Republican-controlled Legislature and Beebe, a Democrat, agreed to phase in the tax cuts over a three-year period to take advantage of savings anticipated from the private option.
The proposed budget projects general-revenue growth of about 2 percent next fiscal year and includes an additional $105.8 million over the current levels, with $65 million of it to pay for a 2 percent increase in base funding for public schools and a 1.8 percent increase in all adequacy categories.
The proposed budget also reallocates $10 million for public school employee health insurance and $7 million for the public school recognition program, which rewards schools with students who have high scores on state tests and who have significant growth on the exams.
Also included in the budget is an additional $7 million for county-jail reimbursement and a $3.1 million increase for the state Department of Correction, with most of that covering the cost of more than 300 prison beds.
The governor seeks $18 million of the state’s $126 million surplus for state prisons to finish the rest of this fiscal year, including $10 million to pay corrections officers for banked holidays that they have already worked, about $720,000 to open nearly 200 more prison beds and $7.4 million for county-jail reimbursements.
Also, $500,000 from the surplus would go to the Department of Community Correction for county-jail reimbursement, and another $5 million to the state Economic Development Commission to attract new businesses through the governor’s Quick Action Fund.
Beebe has asked for $10 million in surplus funds for the state Education Department to help school districts install new fiber-optic lines through a matching grant program this fiscal year.
Sen. Larry Teague, R-Nashville, co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, said he would not be surprised if some of the governor’s proposed spending increases are not funded, but he thinks the bulk of the budget recommendations will remain.
"I think it’s all OK," Teague said.
Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock, said he would like to see lawmakers stay focused on budget issues "because I don’t think that the people of Arkansas want to have a regular session during the odd-numbered years and then a small regular session during the even-number years. I hope we don’t start going down that slippery slope."
Legislative leaders last week said they were optimistic that the Legislature would approve the private option, but they disagreed on what would need to be done if it fails.
Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, one of the architects of the private option, said the session would have to be extended "because you would be looking at wholesale changes in the budget."
Teague, who said he thought the private option would be considered late in the session, wasn’t so sure.
"What I’d like is for us to go in and do the budget and see if the private option passes, and then, should the private option not pass, then we would take care of those issues during revenue stabilization," he said.
The bill concerning the election of a new lieutenant governor is needed because the office was vacated Feb. 1 when Darr resigned.
A state law requires a special election to be held within 150 days of a vacancy being declared in the lieutenant governor’s office, but House and Senate leaders have said that with the office up for election in November anyway, they favor avoiding the expense of a special election if possible.
The measure expected to be considered during the fiscal session would leave it to the discretion of the governor whether to call a special election if a vacancy occurs in the lieutenant governor’s office within 11 months of a regular election for the office.