By ROB MORITZ
Arkansas News Bureau
LITTLE ROCK — With most state budgets already approved or awaiting final action and the lottery and spending priority bills headed to lawmakers’ desks, the Legislature is on target to wrap up its first-ever fiscal session this week with time to spare.
Today is the deadline for lawmakers to file bills, and both the House and Senate will gather for their first Monday meetings since the fiscal session convened Feb. 8. The Joint Budget Committee and House Rules Committee also have meetings scheduled today.
"I think we have a shot" at ending the session Friday, Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, Joint Budget co-chairman, said last week.
A constitutional amendment voters approved in 2008 requires the Legislature to budget annually rather than every two years, beginning this year. It provides for a 30-day fiscal session in even-numbered years with one 15-day extension possible with a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate.
Lawmakers, eager to get on with election campaigns, could put a wrap on the session after three weeks. The political filing period begins March 1.
Legislation to amend the state’s lottery law and debate on the end-of-session Revenue Stabilization Act may not be without contention, but legislative leaders believe both will ultimately will pass and be signed into law.
The sticking point on the Revenue Stabilization Act, the mechanism to prioritize state spending within Gov. Mike Beebe’s $4.5 million budget for the fiscal year that begins July 1, is the governor’s proposal to borrow $10 million from the legislative side of the General Improvement Fund to shore up this year’s budget.
"There is still some angst" by some lawmakers who have a problem with the governor dictating where surplus money allotted to legislators for capital projects in their districts are spent, Baker said.
Beebe has proposed using the $10 million, plus $3 million from his portion of the GIF, to fund several one-time needs through the end of the current fiscal year June 30, including reimbursing counties $8 million for housing state inmates. He proposes to reimburse the $10 million from fund balances that accrue over the next year.
The proposed Revenue Stabilization Act also includes using up to $25 million from the Budget Stabilization Fund to pay for tax refunds, if necessary.
Richard Weiss, director of the state Department of Finance and Administration, described transferring the $25 million as a "cautionary measure," for use only if revenues come up short at the end of this fiscal year and the state is hit with last-minute income tax and corporate tax refunds.
The House version of the Revenue Stabilization Act is expected to be considered on the House floor Tuesday.
Today, the House Rules Committee is to get its first look at the House lottery bill.
Some House members have expressed frustration with the measure because of proposed new language regarding lottery scholarship eligibility requirements of students who attend schools that inflate grades. They want the bill to deal only with setting the amounts of lottery-funded scholarships at $5,000 for four-year schools and $2,500 for two-year schools.
The Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee is to consider the Senate lottery bill Tuesday.
Legislative leaders say they have reached an agreement with the Beebe administration to keep lawmakers apprised of any planned cuts in Medicaid, the government health insurance program for the poor, the elderly and the disabled.
The director of the state Department of Human Services, which administers the Medicaid program, is scheduled to meet Tuesday with the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee.
Under the agreement, any cuts in Medicaid would have to be reviewed by lawmakers before they are implemented. The pact is to be added as an amendment to the DHS Medicaid budget bill before the Joint Budget Committee today.
Last week, DHS Director John Selig told the panel last week his agency would have to cut $400 million from Medicaid programs and take in fewer new clients next year to keep next year’s Medicaid budget at the current level.
Selig said he recently met with Medicaid providers to discuss possible cuts. The group is to report back with recommendations March 1, and a decision on what to cut is expected before June 30.