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Arkansas lawmakers start meeting Monday on fiscal 2023 budget, but may look into abortion, school mask mandates

Funds for police,   jails on to-do list by Rachel Herzog, Michael R. Wickline | February 13, 2022 at 4:25 a.m.
FILE — The state Capitol is shown in this file photo.


In its fiscal session that begins Monday, the Arkansas General Assembly will consider proposals to provide one-time stipends to certified law enforcement officers, pay counties more to hold state prisoners in their jails and give some state funding to pregnancy resource centers.

But lawmakers will likely take up more than appropriations bills and other financial matters.

A senator wants the Republican-dominated Legislature to consider a bill that would couple a Texas-style civil cause of action with a ban on abortion except to save the life of the mother.

Another senator wants to propose linking state funding for the public schools to whether they have policies requiring people to wear masks over covid-19.

Fiscal sessions, which take place in even-numbered years, are intended primarily to approve state budget matters. Regular legislative sessions, held in odd-numbered years, are for all types of legislation.

A two-thirds vote of the House and Senate is required to introduce non-appropriation bills in a fiscal session.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson has proposed a general revenue budget of $6.04 billion for fiscal 2023 that starts July 1. The budget total would be a $194.6 million increase over the current year's budget. Most of the increase would be for public schools and human services programs.

The Republican governor's proposal envisions leaving a $174.4 million surplus at the end of fiscal 2023.

Hutchinson aims to fund initiatives to reduce the waiting list for the developmentally disabled to receive services, boost the entry-level salaries of state troopers to make their pay more competitive in the South, and provide sufficient funding for the state's health insurance plans for public school and state employees and retirees.

He said Thursday that the state Department of Finance and Administration now conservatively estimates the surplus will be about $500 million at the end of fiscal 2022 on June 30, up from its earlier projection of $264.4 million.

He disclosed that after he signaled his support for a plan to use surplus funds to create space for about 498 more prison beds at the North Central Unit at Calico Rock. The additional prison beds could cost between $60 million and $100 million, he said.

Hutchinson said Friday in a written statement, "The general revenue budget will not need to be adjusted because of one time spending on capital projects.

"If adjustments are made to the amount of reimbursement to the counties for housing prisoners then that would require a change in the Department of Corrections budget," he said. "I support an increase but I have not agreed to a specific amount."

SESSION TIME

The House of Representatives and the Senate will convene in their respective chambers at the state Capitol at noon Monday, and then the governor is scheduled to make a speech to a joint session in the House chamber.

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said he doesn't know how long the fiscal session will last.

"I would hope we could get out in two or three weeks," he said Friday in an interview.

"It remains to be seen on whether there will be other things put out there, so we'll have to take it a day at a time."

Just a week into the session, elections will officially get underway with candidate filing.

The filing period for state and federal candidates begins Feb. 22 at the Capitol and runs through March 1. The primary election is May 24. The general election is Nov. 8.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said he expects the fiscal session to last about the average amount of time for a fiscal session. He said he plans to file a resolution that would extend the fiscal session by up to 15 days after 30 days, but "I personally don't see we are going to need it."

The first fiscal session, in 2010, lasted 25 days. The second, in 2012, was 26 days. The longest was 38 days in 2014.

Since Hutchinson took office in 2015, the fiscal sessions were 27 days in 2016, 29 days in 2018 and 17 days in 2020 at the onset of the covid-19 pandemic, with the state House of Representatives meeting at the Jack Stephens Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. Most lawmakers wore masks and spread out to maintain the recommended distance between them.

POLICE, PRISONS

Hickey said Friday that he expects lawmakers to consider a proposal to grant a one-time stipend of $5,000 to city and county full-time certified law enforcement officers and a $2,000 stipend to full-time certified law enforcement officers at the Arkansas State Police.

The proposal would dovetail with the governor's proposal aimed at boosting entry-level salaries for troopers at the Arkansas State Police, Hickey said.

He said he didn't have a cost estimate for the proposal to grant the stipends, but they would be made in two separate payments, with the first payment in July and the second payment toward the end of the year.

Hickey said cities and counties also "are having trouble with retention and recruitment" of law enforcement officers and that justifies the proposed one-time stipends.

Asked if he has agreed to support the proposal, Hutchinson said Friday in a written statement, "This will be addressed on Monday."

Hickey said it appears that lawmakers will consider increasing from the current $32 to a proposed $40 per day the rate that counties are paid for holding a state prisoner in their jails. The proposal is expected to cost the state roughly $6.4 million a year, he said.

He said county officials indicate that they spend more than $32 per day to house a state prisoner in their jails and rising inflation has factored into that.

Asked if he has agreed to support the proposal, Hutchinson said Friday, "This will be addressed on Monday."

Shepherd and Hickey said they support the concept of adding prison space, but they want to see the cost and other details of the plan to add about 498 more beds at the prison in Calico Rock before declaring their support.

That prison has a maximum capacity of 700 male inmates, according to the Department of Corrections.

ABORTION BILL

Hickey said he expects lawmakers to consider a proposal to provide $1 million in state grants to pregnancy resource centers through the state Department of Finance and Administration. The pregnancy resource centers would apply for the grants to the finance department, which would propose rules for the grant program that the Arkansas Legislative Council would consider, he said.

The pregnancy resource centers assist many young women who are pregnant and help them survive, he said.

Referring to speculation that legislative lawmakers have agreed to provide state funding to pregnancy resource centers in exchange for the Arkansas Family Council not supporting anti-abortion legislation proposed by Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, Shepherd said, "There is no deal."

Hickey added: "There was never a deal on that."

Arkansas Family Council President Jerry Cox told Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist John Brummett that "we don't make deals," though he acknowledged that there was a confluence of facts that might look like a deal to the untrained eye.

Asked if he has agreed to support providing $1 million in state funding to the pregnancy resource centers, Hutchinson said Friday, "If this issue is raised, then I will respond as needed."

Rapert said Friday that he plans to file a resolution for lawmakers to allow the introduction of a bill coupling a civil cause of action with the provisions of Act 309 of 2021, a law that bans abortions except to save the life of the mother. Act 309 is enjoined by a court order.

The civil cause of action provision would be similar to that included in the law Texas enacted in May that bans abortions at six weeks and allows private citizens to enforce the law through lawsuits. The U.S. Supreme Court and a federal appeals court have allowed the law to remain in effect while litigation involving it works its way through lower courts.

Rapert, a candidate for lieutenant governor, tried unsuccessfully to extend the special session on income tax cuts in December to consider his legislation. He said he believed the latest court developments would make lawmakers more likely to support his proposal this time around.

He added that he had heard of legislators considering drafting an alternate bill "so they could cover their backsides," but said he didn't have firsthand knowledge.

"A lot of that's just conjecture," he said.

Hickey said he doesn't believe that there is an appetite for Arkansas to enact a Texas-style abortion law and he believes that state lawmakers need to wait for guidance on anti-abortion legislation from the U.S. Supreme Court.

He noted that Arkansas has been named the No. 1 pro-life state in the nation by Americans United for Life.

"My preference is we wait, but that's up to the membership."

Cox said Friday in a written statement that the Arkansas Family Council believes the General Assembly should pass no bills pertaining to abortion during the coming fiscal session, because their passage would jeopardize the state's current ban on abortions.

"No state has a law stronger than Arkansas' Act 309 of 2021 which bans all abortions except to save the mother's life," he said. "All that is needed for this good law to take effect is for the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade abortion decision. That could happen by June of this year when the U.S. Supreme Court issues its decision in the Dobbs v Jackson Women's Health case."

Cox added, "We have no plans to work against any pro-life bills or to criticize lawmakers who are on either side of the debate on pro-life bills."

SCHOOL FUNDING, HEALTH INSURANCE

Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, said he is working on legislation that would punitively adjust state funding for public schools that require students to wear masks because of covid-19. Garner said he was still working out the details, but the bill could entail cutting "significant funding" for those schools or putting them in a different funding category.

Garner said he planned to craft the bill so it would be considered germane to the fiscal session. He said getting a two-thirds vote in both chambers to consider the measure would likely be too high of a hurdle.

The sponsors of several bills that would make changes to the state's health insurance plans for more than 100,000 public school and state employees are required to get a two-thirds vote of the House and Senate to introduce their bills because they are considered non-appropriation bills.

"Hopefully, we'll take a giant step forward," Senate Democratic leader Keith Ingram of West Memphis said of these bills.

Hickey said he doesn't support enacting tax cuts in the fiscal session.

"We have already done some monstrous tax cuts with triggers," he said.

In the Dec. 7-9 special session, the Legislature enacted individual income and corporate tax rate cuts that state officials project will eventually reduce general revenue by nearly $500 million a year by fiscal 2026.

The tax cuts are projected to reduce general revenue by $135 million in the current fiscal 2022 and $307 million in fiscal 2023.

If the state taps its catastrophic reserve fund, formerly called the long-term reserve fund, during certain periods, that would forestall individual income and corporate income tax rate cuts in the future under the laws enacted in the special session. The state's catastrophic reserve fund totals about $1.2 billion.

Hickey said lawmakers should consider providing a one-time tax credit to taxpayers in the future, but not in the fiscal session. The state's tax collections are currently extraordinary largely because of inflation and federal coronavirus stimulus funding, he said.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said the Legislature could consider a one-time tax credit or rebate during the 2023 regular session.


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