LITTLE ROCK – Arkansas lawmakers voted Thursday to begin work on the state’s budget for the coming year, ending a stalemate over a Republican push to cut spending from Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe’s $4.7 billion proposal.
The House and Senate gave final approval to resolutions that will allow Beebe’s budget to be introduced after Republicans in the Democrat-controlled Legislature conceded that it was unlikely their proposed spending cuts would be adopted.
"We made very reasonable proposals, and it doesn’t seem like there’s going to be room for consensus," House Minority Leader John Burris, R-Harrison, said after the vote. "We’re not going to shut down the session. We’re not going to leave without a budget. We’re not going to delay it and cost taxpayers money when the outcome is determined."
Although Republicans are a minority in the House and Senate, they hold enough seats to block the budget bill from being considered. Legislative leaders said they hope to present the budget legislation on Friday, and are aiming to end the legislative session on March 2.
Republicans had originally proposed cutting $21 million from Beebe’s budget by reducing spending by 3 percent at 11 state agencies and changing the way a proposed $114 million Medicaid budget increase would be funded. Beebe opposed most of the GOP’s proposals, as well as a revised offer that would have cut a smaller amount.
Beebe had offered more than $678,000 in cuts that he would be willing to make.
Legislative leaders said they expected that the Revenue Stabilization bill – the funding mechanism for the state’s budget – being introduced Friday wouldn’t stray far from Beebe’s proposals. Aside from the Medicaid increase, Beebe has proposed a $56 million increase in funding for public schools and keeping most other agencies’ budgets flat.
"It’s going to look much like the governor’s balanced budget," said House Speaker Robert Moore, D-Arkansas City.
Senate President Paul Bookout said he believed the budget bill would receive strong support in the Senate, but Beebe’s proposals may face some minor changes.
"I think you’ll see strong support, and sometimes little tweaks here and there can make a big difference," said Bookout, D-Jonesboro.
The budget resolution required 67 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate. It cleared the House on an 81-2 vote and the Senate on a 34-0 vote. The budget bill itself only requires a simple majority in both chambers.
Before the vote, Beebe said he believed lawmakers were ready to wrap up the legislative session.
"They have good sense," he said. "They don’t want to be labeled like Congress as not being able to work together and get things done."
A top Republican in the Senate said the GOP’s push for cuts brought about more scrutiny of Beebe’s budget proposal, but did little in terms of substantial changes.
"In a sense, even if nothing was cut, there was some benefit," said Sen. Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, the Senate minority whip. "But at the end of the day, if you’re asking did we accomplish very much, no."
Sen. Gilbert Baker, who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, said budget negotiators are still discussing Medicaid. The Republican budget proposal had called for using the surplus to pay for $14 million of Beebe’s proposed Medicaid increase, and using another $25 million from the surplus for an expected Medicaid shortfall in 2013.
Baker, R-Conway, said he believed the House GOP push for its own budget helped open up a budget negotiation process that has historically been conducted behind closed doors among a select group of legislative leaders.
"We’ve had a more vigorous and open debate," Baker said. "Regardless of what ends up, I think more folks have been involved in the process and I think that’s a healthy thing."
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