Prisons and Pre-K: Legislators Look to State Surplus

Mar 6, 2014

Senators Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) and Larry Teague (D-Nashville) talk before the Joint Budget meeting. Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) and Johnathan Dismang (R-Beebe) confer in the background.
Credit Jacob Kauffman / KUAR

The debate over re-authorizing funds for the private option is over for the time being and legislators are moving on to other areas of the budget. The Joint Budget Committee met Thursday afternoon to allocate surplus funding for additional projects.

Foremost of which was a package of nearly $22 million for charter schools, broadband in schools, to add prison beds, and to reimburse county jails. The increase in Department of Correction funding was requested because jails are swelling after changes to the parole system last year.

Some such as Senator Linda Chesterfield of Little Rock argued the package presented by Speaker Davy Carter struck the wrong balance. Chesterfield spoke in favor of an amendment by fellow Little Rock Democrat Joyce Elliott allocating $2 million for pre-K programs.

“It is interesting to me that we have already adopted the batch that has been put together by the guys [audible laughter]. I would venture to say that there was not one of us women in the room and I don't think I would be wrong if said it. But what is troubling to me is the emphasis that is being placed on correction without an equal interest on those things that preclude correction being a necessity. One of those things is preparing young people to go to school and to be successful. That is what pre-K does,” said Chesterfield.

Republican John Burris of Harrison opposed the pre-K funding.

“You still have to view things in the context of the larger budget. The overall objective here is to leave a little bit of money in the bank, hopefully around $100 million, because we don't know what's going to happen. I've had conversations all day long about how we're going to have to build a prison, we're going to have to do...the list goes on and on of really important things that are going to have to happen and they're all very worthy but it's our job to be responsible in how we budget,” said Burris.

Toward the end of the debate over using surplus funds for pre-K Chesterfield re-iterated her remarks.

“It seems to me that the only priorities we seem to have on our minds is the Department of Correction and something that they need to have. I have no problem with that except I don't think we can build our way out of this problem. We’ve got to try to educate our way into something that's better. It is troubling to me that we have decided, or some people have decided, we don't want to be inconvenienced by talking about anything else that hasn't already been agreed to by the boys,” said Chesterfield.

Elliott's pre-K funding amendment ultimately failed when the Joint Budget Committee co-chair, Democrat Larry Teague of Nashville, entertained a roll call after an ambiguous voice vote.

Carter and Dismang's proposal passed without the funding of additional projects. Leaving over $100 million of the $125 million surplus untouched.