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Fiscal '16 state budget, prison bill on to-do list

Legislators mark 71st day of session by Michael R. Wickline | March 23, 2015 at 3:35 a.m. | Updated March 22, 2015 at 8:47 p.m.

Arkansas legislative leaders said they're hoping to have a copy of state government's proposed $5.2 billion budget for fiscal 2016 on the desks of lawmakers by the end of this week as they scramble to wrap up the Arkansas legislative session by the end of this month.

They said they also want this week to complete work on legislation complementing Gov. Asa Hutchinson's $32 million plan to curb prison crowding. And they want to take up measures seeking to improve the state's workforce development programs, to restore capital-gains tax cuts, and to change the size and eligibility for lottery-financed scholarships.

Legislation making it a felony to "re-home" adopted children is expected to be on the Senate agenda this week.

Today is the 71st day of this year's regular legislative session, which started on Jan. 12.

The Arkansas Legislature's leaders hope to complete business by early next week.

"We're probably going to have some late nights and some long days, so be prepared," House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, warned representatives late Friday afternoon. "But I think it is going to be necessary to ensure that you get as fair of a shot as you can at getting your bills through the system, so that's why we are doing this."

Senate President Pro Tempore Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said this week "will be pretty intense."

Dismang said negotiations are continuing with Hutchinson on the Revenue Stabilization Act, which will distribute general revenue to state agencies and programs in fiscal 2016. Fiscal 2016 starts July 1.

In January, Hutchinson proposed a general revenue budget for fiscal 2016 that would increase state spending by $149.5 million to nearly $5.2 billion with most of the increased funding going to public schools, human services programs and prisons.


In this year's session, the Arkansas Legislature and Hutchinson passed Act 22, cutting income tax rates for Arkansans with taxable incomes of between $21,000 and $75,000, and repealing certain capital-gains income tax cuts enacted in 2013.

Act 22 is projected to reduce state general revenue by $22.9 million in fiscal 2016 and $90.3 million in fiscal 2017, according to the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration.

Legislation restoring the capital-gains tax cuts that were repealed in Act 22 would reduce state general revenue by $6 million in fiscal 2016 and $10.7 million in fiscal 2017, according to the finance department.

The bill is HB1402 by Rep. Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado. It cleared the House Revenue and Taxation Committee on Thursday.

"We have made some suggestions to the administration [about changing the governor's proposed general revenue budget], and we are waiting to get feedback on that right now," Dismang said Friday.

"Things are very tight. I don't think we can understate that. With the additional capital gains tax cut, we are going to have to find some places to make some adjustments [to reduce spending in the governor's proposed budget]," Dismang said.

Dismang said he doesn't believe that the state can afford any more significant tax cuts beyond the legislation restoring the capital gains tax cuts repealed earlier in the session.

Before the legislative session, Gillam, a farmer, said that one of his top priorities would be increasing state funding for the University of Arkansas' Division of Agriculture.

Dismang said it will hard, given the tight budget, to find extra money for that program.


Also this week, lawmakers could decide the fate of a lottery scholarship bill.

Sen. Jimmy Hickey R-Texarkana, said he has drafted an amendment to change his Senate Bill 5, which would reduce the size of the Arkansas Academic Challenge Scholarships for future recipients during their first years in college and change eligibility requirements for the scholarships.

But he declined to disclose his proposed amendment Friday night, saying he needs to discuss it first with the House speaker.

SB5, which has already passed in the Senate, is awaiting action in the House Rules Committee, which Gillam appointed.

"I wouldn't say it is dead. I think we are just allowing members to be able to vet their concerns and their questions with Sen. Hickey and work through the process," Gillam said.

Under SB5, starting in the 2015-16 academic year, the scholarship would be reduced from $2,000 to $1,000 for recipients' freshman years at two- and four-year colleges. The scholarships would be increased from $3,000 to $4,000 for recipients' sophomore years at four-year colleges and from $2,000 to $3,000 for sophomore years at two-year colleges.

Scholarship recipients would receive $4,000 in their junior years and $5,000 as seniors at four-year universities.

SB5 also would change the scholarship's eligibility requirements. Future high school graduates would be required to have ACT scores of at least 19, or the equivalent on comparable college entrance exams.

Under current state law, the high school graduates are required to have successfully completed the Smart Core curriculum and achieved either a high school grade-point average of at least 2.5 or a minimum score of 19 on the ACT or the equivalent.


Dismang said he hopes to get Senate approval for his SB2, which would implement a constitutional amendment approved by voters last November. That amendment allows the Legislature to require that state agencies get legislative approval before they change any agency rules or regulations.

Proposed changes would be automatically approved after being reviewed by the Legislative Council's Administrative Rules and Regulation Subcommittee unless a majority of the subcommittee members voted to not approve them, Dismang said.

The state's higher-education institutions, the state Highway Department, and the Game and Fish Commission would be exempt from the rule-making review, Dismang added.


Though Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee Chairman Eddie Joe Williams, R-Cabot, and Dismang said Thursday that the Legislature wouldn't refer any proposed constitutional amendments to voters during this year's session, Gillam said "if there are any of the constitutional amendments that the General Assembly wants to address, that will be addressed [this week]."

"Everybody seemed to be content with not sending anything out the last couple of days," Gillam said. "But I've heard some people talking [Friday afternoon] that maybe they'd like to maybe revisit a couple of them, so we'll see what the [House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs] committees' will is [this week]."


The House on Friday overwhelmingly approved a bill that would prohibit adoptive parents from giving their adopted children away to non-family members or distant relatives in most instances. The Senate is expected to take up the issue this week.

Re-homing became an issue after the Arkansas Times reported that state Rep. Justin Harris, R-West Fork, had given away his two adopted daughters to a man who later raped one of the girls.

The legislator, who owns a state-subsidized preschool called Growing God's Kingdom, said the two girls -- ages 3 and 5 at the time -- had been scarred by past abuse and were too difficult for him to raise. He accused the Department of Human Services of opposing the adoption and later of failing to help him when he no longer wanted custody of them.

Metro on 03/23/2015

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