LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Arkansas' public schools would receive the largest funding increase and the state's reserve fund would get $19 million under a $5 billion budget plan that lawmakers advanced Friday.
The Joint Budget Committee endorsed the state's budget bill, formally known as the proposed Revenue Stabilization Act, as they neared the end of this year's legislative session. The House and Senate are expected to vote on identical versions of the measure next week before wrapping up the session.
The legislation largely mirrors the budget proposal Gov. Mike Beebe presented in January, calling for a $108 million increase in state spending over the next fiscal year. Public schools are set to receive the largest increase, with $65 million addition funding proposed.
Beebe said the Legislature's reauthorization of the state's compromise Medicaid expansion plan made budget talks with legislative leaders much easier. Beebe, who signed the reauthorization measure into law Friday, said ending the "private option" would have led to severe cuts in the budget.
Beebe said he had prepared an alternative budget in case the Legislature didn't approve the expansion plan.
"It was going to be very painful," the governor told reporters. "Once the private option was approved, you could proceed along the lines of the original budget, which is what they did."
One of the changes lawmakers made from Beebe's original proposal was to increase the amount set aside in the state's "rainy day fund." Beebe proposed $10 million for the fund, but the legislation would allocate $19 million to it.
Legislative leaders said the additional $9 million is for the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences and the state's community health centers. Rather than increase funding as Beebe had proposed for the two entities, lawmakers said they want to keep the money in the fund so they can ask the Legislature for the funds as needed.
"We really wanted them to come back to us to prove they needed the money," said Rep. Duncan Baird, co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee. "Basically make the case in the fiscal year for why they need that money."
The budget also includes $3.1 million in additional funding for the Department of Correction and a $7 million increase in the reimbursement counties receive for housing state prisoners. The additional funds are aimed at easing a prison backlog because of an overhaul of state probation and parole policies.
The legislation also includes $5.2 million for state employees to receive a 1 percent raise.
The budget bill advanced a day after House and Senate leaders agreed to a plan to tap nearly $22 million from the state's surplus for various needs, such as school broadband and state prisons. Beebe and lawmakers had proposed more than $92 million worth of projects to be funded by the $126 million surplus, but legislative leaders said they wanted to keep most of that money untouched.
Budget proposal: http://bit.ly/1fdMnRX
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