Arkansas Lawmakers Return To Capitol, With Focus On Budget

Apr 10, 2016

Credit Chris Hickey / KUAR News

Days after wrapping up a session focused on the state's hybrid Medicaid expansion, Arkansas lawmakers are meeting again to tackle the state's budget and a renewed fight over the program that is covering thousands of low-income residents.

The House and Senate are set to convene Wednesday for an abbreviated fiscal session where they'll work on the state's budget for the coming year. Part of the session will include a fight with opponents of the hybrid expansion who have vowed to block its funding.

Here's a look at the fiscal session and the issues facing lawmakers in the coming weeks:

WHAT'S A FISCAL SESSION?

Before a constitutional amendment voters approved in 2008 requiring the Legislature to meet annually, the state's budget was crafted every two years by lawmakers. Now, the Legislature meets in odd-numbered years for a general session where they can address a wide range of issues and in even-numbered years to focus primarily on fiscal issues. The Legislature can take up non-budget bills during the fiscal session, but doing so takes two-thirds support of the House and Senate.

THE BUDGET PROCESS

During the session, lawmakers will take up dozens of appropriations bills for Arkansas agencies that authorize state spending. Most of these appropriations bills require a three-fourths vote in the House and Senate. In the final days of the session, legislative leaders and Gov. Asa Hutchinson will negotiate the proposed Revenue Stabilization Act that will go before the House and Senate. That measure will fund these agencies based on the state's expected revenue.  In other words, agencies that are considered a higher priority will be funded first based on the revenue.

HUTCHINSON'S BUDGET

Hutchinson has proposed a $5.3 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, with a $142.7 million increase in state spending. The bulk of the spending increases Hutchinson proposed would go toward the Department of Human Services, with the governor proposing nearly $112 million in new funding. The state's Medicaid program would receive $88 million of that, and $20.4 million would go toward the state's child welfare programs. Hutchinson also proposed increasing funding for the state's schools by $23.7 million. The proposal doesn't restore the cuts that lawmakers approved in the current year's budget, which had reduced spending by 1 percent for most agencies other than Medicaid, public schools and prisons.

ANOTHER MEDICAID FIGHT?

This session will be marked by another fight over the future of the state's hybrid Medicaid expansion. Lawmakers last week approved Hutchinson's plan to rework the expansion by wide margins, but shy of the three-fourths support the Medicaid budget bill funding the program will need. The program uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for more than 250,000 low-income residents. Hutchinson has urged fellow Republicans who want to defund the program to avoid a Washington-style shutdown fight and has noted the program won the support of most Republicans and all Democrats in the Legislature. The program's opponents are pushing for a separate vote on the program, rather than it being part of the Medicaid budget. Hutchinson has warned that ending the program would mean a budget deficit of at least $100 million.

COMPETING BUDGET IDEAS

Hutchinson's budget proposal isn't the only one lawmakers are likely to debate during the session. One Republican lawmaker has proposed cutting funding to the Arkansas Educational Television Network, War Memorial Stadium in Little Rock and the state's colleges and universities. Democrats say they're hoping to find ways to restore some of the cuts legislators made last year to public libraries, after-school programs, aging programs and community health centers, among other services.

HOW LONG WILL THIS LAST?

Fiscal sessions, under the state constitution, are shorter than the general sessions that occur in odd-numbered years. Legislators have 30 working days to wrap up, though with a three-fourths vote they can stay up to 45 days. So the longest the session can run is until May 27.