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story.lead_photo.caption Gov. Asa Hutchinson, center, speaks during a news conference on Tuesday where he announced the first deaths from covid-19 in the state of Arkansas.

Gov. Asa Hutchison said Tuesday that he wants the Arkansas General Assembly to meet in a special session, starting Thursday, to consider legislation to authorize him to use $173 million in unallocated surplus funds to help fill some needs in a budget shortfall brought on by the coronavirus pandemic.

Lawmakers, to avoid infection, plan to take unusual steps for a legislative session.

The Republican governor said House and Senate leaders have assured him that they "are taking some extra precautions, so that they can have the social distancing that is needed [and] to have the screening, both for their own health, but also to set a good example for the state that they are taking this seriously."

Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said later Tuesday that the 100-member House's intention is to meet at the Jack Stephens Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to provide adequate space between representatives as well as their staff members.

[CORONAVIRUS: Click here for our complete coverage » arkansasonline.com/coronavirus]

Senate President Pro Tempore Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, said 20 of the Senate's 35 members will be in the Senate chamber in the Capitol, with 10 members on each side with sufficient space between themselves, a handful of staff members and a few reporters to avoid the spreading any virus. Other senators can participate in the galleries overlooking the chamber, he said.

Hendren said the Senate will consider a draft rule to require a senator to give written notice to allow a proxy vote and enable a colleague to vote for the senator until June 30 in case any senators can't make it to the Capitol because of health concerns or other reasons.

Shepherd said the House will consider a similar proposal on proxy votes.

Hutchinson's administration on Monday cut the general revenue budget by $353.1 million to $5.38 billion in the fiscal year ending June 30. He indicated the cut triggered the need for a special session to allow him to use the unallocated surplus to help cover budget needs.

The governor said the budget cut resulted from a projected decline in state tax collections from job losses and business slowdowns, as well as from shifting the state's individual tax filing and payment deadline from April 15 to July 15, mirroring the extension granted by the federal government in face of the pandemic.

At his news conference Tuesday afternoon, Hutchinson said his proclamation to call for the special session and legislation "are being prepared as we speak.

"I do not intend to issue the proclamation until we have a consensus from the Legislature on exactly the legislation and the support for that," the governor said. "We do not need to get together for a prolonged period of time, with contentious debate."

Hendren and Shepherd said later that the draft bill would transfer the $173 million in surplus funds to a "rainy-day" fund named after covid-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Any leftover funds on June 30 would go back into the allotment reserve fund.

They said that under the draft bill, approval for the governor's use of these funds would require the backing by two of three leaders in the House and Senate.

The Senate leaders would be the president pro tempore and the Republican and Democratic leaders. Those in the House would be the speaker and the Republican and Democratic leaders.

BUDGET CUTS

Meanwhile, state agencies are required to report to the budget office their plans to cut their general revenue budgets today, said budget administrator Jake Bleed.

The $353.1 million reduction for fiscal 2020 includes:

• A $134.3 million cut, to $1.6 billion, at the Department of Human Services, which had a budget of $1.66 billion in fiscal 2019.

• A $122.9 million cut, to $2.1 billion, for the public school fund, which had a budget of $2.19 billion in fiscal 2019.

• A $43.3 million cut, to $706.4 million, for the state's colleges and universities, which had a budget of of $745.6 million in fiscal 2019.

At the Human Services Department, spokeswoman Amy Webb said, "We are reviewing our budget now to determine how best to approach those cuts. At this time, we do not have a fully detailed plan, but we are aware that these cuts will be needed."

Bleed said the state funding to provide an adequate education for public school students won't be cut because "we are constitutionally required to make sure that we fund that first, so we are going to make sure that is met."

The state Division of Elementary and Secondary Education returned more than $90 million from the public school fund to the educational adequacy fund and "we had planned to return another $60 million in FY20," said Alisha Lewis, chief communications director for the Department of Education.

"We will tap these funds to fill the gap caused from the reduction in general revenue. These surpluses were a result of revenues from the uniform rate of tax coming in higher than forecast," she said.

The University of Arkansas-Pulaski Technical College will freeze travel, maintenance and operations spending and facility upgrades, Chancellor Margaret Ellibee announced in an email Tuesday to faculty and staff members.

Other schools said they would institute hiring freezes, while another is looking at using reserve funds to cover expenses. Some schools said they were still looking at measures, having learned the dollar figures of the revisions Monday night.

Other cuts in fiscal 2020 include a $17.6 million reduction, to $343.3 million, at the Department of Correction, which had a budget of $353.1 million in fiscal 2019, and a $6.3 million cut, to $87.2 million, at the Division of Community Correction, which had an $87.9 million budget last fiscal year.

The Correction department could begin absorbing the cuts by ending the purchase of new vehicles and computer equipment, according Benny Magness, chairman of the Board of Corrections.

A spokeswoman said the agency also is expecting savings as a result of a hiring freeze on the administrative staff, reduced travel budgets and energy-efficient upgrades made to several prison buildings in the past year.

Still, said Dina Tyler, the spokeswoman, the department was reviewing its options for cutting year-end costs.

At the Division of Community Correction, which oversees parole and probation services, "just about everything is on the table except our employees," Tyler said.

As part of the $5 million in second-tier priority funding for both agencies that was zeroed-out in the budget cuts, Tyler said most had already been dedicated toward hiring 30 new parole and probation officers, three new substance abuse counselors and increases in medical contracts.

Because the contracts must be paid and the agencies are not looking at layoff, Tyler said both agencies will have to find greater reductions in funding from the highest priority category.

The Board of Corrections in scheduled to meet this morning to discuss several developments related to the coronavirus. While budgetary concerns are not on the agenda, Magness said the topic could be raised at the meeting.

Information for this article was contributed by John Moritz and Emily Walkenhorst of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Metro on 03/25/2020

Print Headline: Special-session plans firm up

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