LITTLE ROCK – Some observers may think that fiscal sessions of the legislature lack drama, because of the lack of controversy. Lawmakers focus on budgets and revenue projections.
But a glimpse at one day’s work in the Arkansas Senate offers a revealing perspective on the numerous services provided by state government.
On the final day of the session’s first week, the Senate approved a long list of appropriations, which authorize spending by state agencies and institutions of higher education for next year.
They included budget bills for the State Police that allow the agency to replace aging equipment and upgrade its computer and radio systems. Another spending bill authorized the Department of Community Correction to renovate facilities and equipment. The department operates minimum security lock-ups, halfway houses and specialty courts such as drug courts. It hires officers who supervise offenders who have been released on probation or parole.
The Senate approved funding for new laboratory equipment for the state Crime Lab, which analyzes forensic evidence and performs autopsies.
One of several funding bills for state prisons was passed. It was for salaries and expenses at the Ouachita Unit in Malvern and the women’s work release center in Pine Bluff.
The list of spending bills included one of the many that will fund the Human Services Department. The bill authorized upgrades and construction at the Booneville Human Development Center, a long-term care facility for about 125 adults with severe and chronic intellectual disabilities.
A couple of bills adopted budgets for organizations that boost Arkansas agriculture, such as the Beef Council and the Catfish Promotion Board.
Another handful of bills were budgets for regulatory and licensing agencies, such as the Boards of Optometry, Physical Therapy, Towing and Recovery, Appraiser Licensing and Home Inspector Registration.
The Senate approved spending measures for several two-year colleges and technical institutes. Also approved was funding for the state Veterans Affairs Department, which operates long term care facilities for aging veterans.
The Arkansas National Guard is within the state Military Department. The Senate approved a capital expenditure for the department’s Civilian Youth Training Program and its Youth Challenge Program.
For the next two or three weeks the Senate will continue to study and vote on similar spending measures. The Arkansas Constitution calls for fiscal sessions to last 30 days, with the possibility of one 15-day extension if necessary. By all appearances, an extension will not be needed.
All the spending bills must be reviewed in detail by the Joint Budget Committee, which generally meets every day the legislature is in session. The committee agreed to draft a measure that would provide $4.5 million to state prisons to use for reimbursements to county jails.
In a speech to a joint session of the House and Senate, the governor proposed cutting the top state income tax rate from 6.9 percent to 6 percent. That would lower taxes by about $180 million a year. However, the governor said that his tax cut proposal would not be introduced until the 2019 regular session.
A legislative task force is working on numerous tax fairness measures, to make Arkansas more competitive. Lowering income taxes is one of the components of its overall package of reforms.