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Arkansas Budget Faces Early Obstacle in House

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LITTLE ROCK – The top Republican in the Arkansas House said Tuesday that the Legislature should hold off taking action on the state’s budget for the coming year as he and other GOP lawmakers work on an alternative to the plan proposed by Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe.

House Minority Leader John Burris said Republicans have questions about Beebe’s $4.7 billion budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Although Republicans are a minority in the state Legislature, they hold enough votes to block the legislation from being introduced.

Burris, R-Harrison, said he believed a move to introduce that plan would likely be rejected without more details.

"There’s just a lot of questions," Burris told reporters. "Once you pass that resolution, all you’ve got left is a yes or no vote on the end. If there are going to be changes and negotiations to the budget, it needs to be before that resolution is passed."

Burris and other Republican lawmakers have said they’re preparing their own version of the Revenue Stabilization bill, which sets spending priorities based on expected revenues. Hundreds of separate appropriations bills detail where the money actually comes from and authorize the state to spend that money, and the stabilization bill is the funding mechanism.

Lawmakers convened Tuesday for the second day of a session focusing primarily on budget issues. The House approved the first bill of the fiscal session, a bill to keep state elected officials’ pay flat for the coming year.

The House Rules Committee endorsed a resolution that would allow the Joint Budget Committee to introduce its Revenue Stabilization bill. However, Burris said he and other Republicans want more details on agency spending before considering that resolution.

Since it’s not technically an appropriations bill, the Revenue Stabilization bill requires a two-thirds vote in the House and Senate to be introduced. But it only needs a simple majority to be approved in both chambers.

Republicans hold 15 of 35 seats in the state Senate and 46 of 100 seats in the House.

Beebe’s budget plan calls for increased funding for Medicaid and public schools, and keeps most other agencies flat. Republicans have said they believe they can find more cuts in state agencies.

Beebe’s office said the governor is open to hearing proposals on the budget, but wants the House to go ahead and vote on the resolution allowing the plan to be introduced.

"We’re ready to move forward with that process," Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said.

Neither the Joint Budget Committee’s nor the Republican budget resolutions spell out how the spending would be prioritized and merely authorize the legislation to be introduced. Burris said Republicans hope to detail their proposed cuts by the end of the week.

Rep. Kathy Webb, co-chair of the Joint Budget Committee, said she still plans to seek a vote Wednesday on her budget resolution.

"I don’t see any real reason to wait on it," said Webb, D-Little Rock.

House Speaker Robert Moore said earlier Tuesday that he believes the Republican proposal may face more scrutiny from lawmakers who want details on where Republicans plan to seek cuts. Moore, D-Arkansas City, said the governor’s budget has already received some scrutiny through the hearings that led to the start of this year’s legislative session.

"We’ve had the scrutiny of the committee and a lot of legislators and the governor and (Department of Finance and Administration) on the budget proposal that’s out there today," Moore said. "We haven’t seen the details of Rep. Burris’ proposal, so obviously there’s going to be a lot of eyes that want to look at those details. I can’t pass judgment on it one way or the other until we see the details of the proposal."

The House also approved legislation Tuesday that would keep salaries for the coming year for constitutional officers, legislators, judges and prosecutors. The measure would also pay for 13 judgeships that will be created in January. The House approved the General Appropriation bill by a 95-0 vote. It now heads to the Senate.

(Copyright 2012 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, rewritten, broadcast or distributed.)

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