With the Arkansas General Assembly returning to the state Capitol on Monday after taking a spring break, lawmakers say they plan to introduce public safety overhaul legislation, work on drafting the state's general revenue budget for the next fiscal year and begin considering whether to refer any proposed constitutional amendments to the voters in the 2024 general election.
Before completing their work in the regular session, the Republican-dominated Legislature and GOP Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders must enact a Revenue Stabilization Act to distribute state general revenue to state-supported programs in fiscal 2024 starting July 1, and determine what to do with $1.3 billion in unallocated state surplus general revenue.
Lawmakers will weigh whether to refer any of 33 proposed constitutional amendments submitted by lawmakers to voters in the 2024 general election. Lawmakers may refer up to three proposed constitutional amendments to voters.
Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, who has been working on public safety legislation with Rep. Jimmy Gazaway, R-Paragould, said Friday that he and Gazaway are looking forward to filing the bill early this week.
"This legislation will contain bold transformational reforms to our criminal justice system that will make our communities safer, crack down on violent repeat offenders, protect the victims of crime, and improve much-needed mental health and re-entry programs in order to address the root causes of crime," he said in a written statement.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch, said that he expects the committee to consider the public safety bill this week.
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, a co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, said Thursday that a proposed Revenue Stabilization Act for fiscal 2024, starting July 1, could be made public as early as the middle of this week, after discussions with legislative leaders and other state lawmakers.
"I think we'll be within that 3[%] to 4% range" for a proposed increase in the state's general revenue budget for fiscal 2024, Dismang said.
"We will be prudent," he said.
In November, then-Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed a $314 million increase in the state's general revenue budget to $6.33 billion in fiscal 2024, starting July 1, 2023, with $200 million of the increase earmarked for public schools.
At that time, the former Republican governor said his proposed budget for fiscal 2024 would represent a 5.2% increase over the current budget of $6.02 billion, leaving a projected general revenue surplus of $254.9 million at the end of fiscal 2024. Considering annual inflation was more than 8% at that time, limiting the growth of the state's general revenue budget to 5.2% reflects conservative budgeting, he said.
The state Department of Education has projected Sanders' education overhaul law, Act 237, will cost $297.5 million, including $150 million in "new money" in fiscal 2024.
Act 237 raises the state's minimum teacher salary from $36,000 to $50,000 a year, grants other teachers $2,000 salary increases, creates Educational Freedom Accounts to help students attend private schools, parochial schools or home school, and enacts many other changes in the education system.
House Bill 1688 by House Education Committee Chairman Brian Evans, R-Cabot, would increase per-student foundation funding by $205 to $7,618 for the 2023-2024 school year and to $7,771 for the 2024-2025 school year. Full-time classified staff, bus drivers, custodians and other school workers would receive funding for about a $2-per-hour raise, Evans said. In addition, the state would fund a 1.8% cost-of-living adjustment for teachers and school secretaries in fiscal year 2024 and a 2.2% increase in fiscal year 2025, he said.
Dismang said state lawmakers could set aside $400 million or $500 million from the state's $1.3 billion in unallocated general revenue surplus to cover the state's share of the cost of public school building projects over the next several years under one proposal.
The surplus money could replace the general revenue allocated for school building projects in the Revenue Stabilization Act under this proposal, he said. The general revenue budget for the educational facilities partnership is $70.3 million in fiscal 2023, and Hutchinson proposed maintaining that funding in fiscal 2024 in his proposed general revenue budget.
"At this point, we are going to be setting aside the money, but how that it ultimately is carried out will be a future discussion, how it is utilized," Dismang said.
In his budget proposal, Hutchinson set aside $41 million in general revenue in fiscal year 2024 for an overhaul of the state's pay plan for executive branch employees.
Sanders announced March 15 that she will not support a broad-based pay plan increase, saying Arkansas taxpayers should not be saddled with the $80 million total cost -- factoring in expenses from general revenue as well as other sources -- for a proposal that doesn't consider the strategic needs in education, public safety, health care and corrections. She asked the Department of Transformation and Shared Services to review and rework the existing classification and compensation structure. The plan covers more than 22,000 executive branch employees.
As far as other potential uses of the unallocated surplus, Dismang said that "there has been a lot of discussion about the [state Crime Laboratory and] the need for additional prison space."
"There are some very large projects that absorb quite a bit of that surplus," he said.
Regarding how much of the surplus could be set aside for additional prison beds and a new Crime Laboratory building, Dismang said that "that needs to be a much bigger discussion that we have not fully vetted amongst the folks that should be involved."
He said he believes that state lawmakers should look at cutting income tax rates, retroactive to Jan. 1, 2023, and "then an additional step that would go [into effect] on Jan. 1, 2024."
"The exact amount I am not sure we have reached agreement on that, but that is what I would personally like to see," Dismang said. "Because of everything that we have happening in year three, four or five I don't think that we need to create some type of trigger or whatever it may be to implement [further income tax cuts] in the future. We can always look at that when we get back in session two years from now."
House Revenue and Taxation Committee Chairman Les Eaves, R-Searcy, said, "We should be able to do up to two-tenths of a [percentage point] reduction" in the individual income tax rate, with triggers to safeguard it.
The state's top individual income tax rate is 4.9%. The state's top corporate income tax rate is 5.3%.
State Department of Finance and Administration spokesman Scott Hardin said, "While we don't have a formal revenue impact for a reduction of the top rate to 4.7%, we do know the following based on previous research: Between 4.9% and 4.0%, the reduction of each tenth of a [percentage point] represents approximately $50 million in revenue."
Rep. Dwight Tosh, R-Jonesboro, said Thursday that the House State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee that he chairs will hear presentations on Monday afternoon, after the House adjourns, from representatives who sponsored proposed constitutional amendments .
Representatives filed 13 proposed amendments, but three are shells lacking details.
Tosh said he hopes the committee decides what amendments it wants to recommend to the House by the end of this week.
"I have not heard of an amendment that everybody is really excited about," Tosh said.
Rep. Robin Lundstrum, R-Elm Springs, has 53 representatives who are co-sponsors for her House Joint Resolution 1006, which is a proposed constitutional amendment aimed at allowing the lottery's net proceeds to be used to fund or provide scholarships or grants to Arkansans enrolled in vocational-technical schools and technical institutes.
She said Friday that her aim is to fund "'hard' vocational training needs such as LPN nursing, trucking, HVAC, electrical, refrigeration, industrial maintenance ... mechanical, plumbing, etc."
Sen. Blake Johnson, R-Corning, said the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee will hear presentations Thursday from senators who proposed constitutional amendments, but it probably won't make decisions about whether to recommend any proposals to the Senate until the following week.
Senators have filed 20 proposed amendments, but 11 are shells lacking details.
Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, who serves on the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, said, "I don't know any [proposed constitutional amendments] that the overall membership is super excited about.
"We like the victims' bill of rights," he said, referring to the Senate Joint Resolution 10 by Sen. Dave Wallace, R-Leachville, which is aimed at providing rights for victims of criminal offenses or delinquent acts. Last month, Wallace said Sanders' staff provided the proposal to him and asked him to run the proposal for her.
"I think it has to be something that a super majority of us are excited about to send out something out, but we'll see," Hester said.
Under Wallace's proposal, a victim would have 10 specified rights that "shall be protected in a manner no less vigorous than the rights afforded to the accused" in order to preserve and protect justice for victims and due process throughout the criminal and juvenile justice systems.
These rights would range from the right to be treated with fairness and respect for the victim's safety, dignity and privacy, to the right to "refuse an interview, deposition or other discovery request made by the accused or any person acting on the behalf of the accused," to the right to full and timely restitution.
The proposed amendment states that it would not create any cause of action for compensation or damages against the state; any political subdivision of the state; any officer, employee or agent of the state or any of its political subdivisions; or any officer or employee of the court.
The House is expected on Monday to consider a bill that would prohibit school staff from addressing students by a pronoun inconsistent with the student's "biological sex," unless they have written permission from a parent.
House Bill 1468, by Rep. Wayne Long, R-Bradford, is listed as the first regular bill for consideration on the House agenda for Monday.
Meanwhile, Stubblefield said the Senate Judiciary Committee on Monday will likely consider concurrence on a House amendment to a bill that would strike a defense statute from state code protecting librarians from criminal liability under state obscenity laws.
Senate Bill 81, by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, which also aims to create an offense for "furnishing a harmful item to a minor" and a process for challenging books available to children in public and school libraries, passed the House earlier this month.
A House amendment to the bill would allow committees of librarians and bodies of local elected officials to require a school or public library to "relocate" challenged books within their library rather than "remove" them.
Also, the House Committee on Judiciary has scheduled a special order of business on Tuesday for Senate Bill 270 by Sen. John Payton, R-Wilburn.
The bill aims to create a criminal penalty for knowingly entering and remaining in a bathroom of the opposite sex while a minor is present. The legislation narrowly cleared the Senate earlier this month. Payton has said the bill is needed to protect children. Opponents have claimed the legislation would create the most extreme bathroom ban in the country.
The House Committee on City, County, and Local Affairs is scheduled on Wednesday to consider a bill that aims to bar local governments from creating certain restrictions on short-term rentals, said committee Chairman Rep. Lanny Fite, R-Benton, on Thursday.
Senate Bill 197, by Sen. Joshua Bryant and Rep. Brit McKenzie, both Republicans from Rogers, drew extended testimony during a meeting of the House panel earlier this month. Since the meeting, an amendment filed by McKenzie has been engrossed.
Fite said it's likely his committee on Wednesday would also consider House Bill 1616 by Rep. Frances Cavenaugh, R-Walnut Ridge, which aims to allow local jurisdictions to post certain notices on an independent third-party website subject to state audit.
The bill is a new version of a measure Cavenaugh filed earlier this session. Under the original bill, counties and municipalities could post notices related to delinquent taxes, elections, ordinances, delinquent properties and financial statements on a nongovernmental third-party site.
HB1616 would allow local governments to post more kinds of notices to the permitted website. Unlike the original bill, which would have phased in online notices at yearly intervals over five years, HB1616 would require jurisdictions to wait five years before posting any of the permitted notices online.
END OF SESSION
Monday will be the 78th day of the regular session.
The House and Senate have approved a resolution that cleared the way for the chambers to recess for a spring break that started on March 16 with lawmakers returning on Monday, as well as a resolution to extend the regular session beyond 60 days and to recess April 7 or at an earlier date agreed upon by the House and Senate.
Hester said Friday that "we will know by Wednesday," whether the Legislature will be able to complete its work in the regular session by April 7.
House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, said Friday he'll probably know by the middle of this week "about whether [April 7] is a viable target for us" to complete action in the regular session.
It would require a three-fourths vote of the 100-member House and the 35-member Senate to extend the session beyond April 7.
April 7 would be the 89th day of the session. April 14 would be the 96th day, and April 21 would be the 103rd. The regular session lasted 118 days in 2021 and was 30 days longer than the 88-day regular session in 2019. The regular session lasted 86 days in 2017 and 82 days in 2015.
Information for this article was contributed by Neal Earley of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.