LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — The top Republican in the Arkansas House said Monday that his proposal to cut $21 million from the state’s budget can be achieved without laying off state workers or interrupting services, while Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe’s office accused the GOP leader of ducking responsibility by not naming specific programs that would be affected.
Wrangling over the state’s budget continued as lawmakers prepared to return to the Capitol for the second week of the legislative session. Beebe’s $4.7 billion budget proposal has stalled while Republicans push for their own plans.
Republicans are the minority in the Legislature, but hold enough votes to block Beebe’s proposed budget.
House Minority Leader John Burris told reporters that he believed agency heads were exaggerating the cuts that he and other Republicans have proposed, and he called some of the responses he’s seen "laughable." Burris has proposed a 3 percent cut to 11 agencies and a change to a way a Medicaid budget increase is funded.
"My hope is the agency directors will do their job, take it seriously and find ways to save money in the least impactful way," Burris said. "I think it’s possible."
The Republican budget-cutting proposal only targets agencies and not specific programs, and Beebe had ordered department heads to detail what they would have to reduce to meet that proposal. Beebe’s office on Tuesday said the governor expected to release all of the responses on Tuesday.
Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample criticized Burris for not being specific on what programs should be reduced.
"Rep. Burris wants all of the glory and none of the responsibility," DeCample said.
Burris said he and other lawmakers have some recommendations on where the savings can be found to pay for the cuts, but said it’s the agency directors’ responsibility to make those decisions. He said the recommendations won’t cover all of the proposed cuts.
"There’s ways to save money," said Burris, R-Harrison. "If agency directors aren’t going to do their job, then we will."
He said that some of the cuts could be paid for by reducing budgets in agencies that regularly return a surplus to the state at the end of every fiscal year, and noted that $7.3 million in such funds were returned to the state last year.
DeCample said that surplus money is a cushion agencies need in case of an economic downturn.
"If you take that money away, you’re putting the agencies at risk of cutbacks in services and layoffs at the end of the fiscal year," he said.
Most of the cuts proposed would come by paying for $14 million of a proposed $114 million Medicaid increase by using money from the state surplus, an idea that Beebe has said he’s concerned about because it would use one-time money to pay for an ongoing need.
The House last week twice delayed a vote on introducing the budget bill, a resolution that requires 67 votes. Republicans hold 46 of the 100 seats in the House. Beebe’s budget calls for the Medicaid increase and a $56 million funding increase for public schools, and keeping most other agencies flat.
The Republican budget proposal would not change the public school funding increase.
Burris said Republicans are open to compromise on the proposal, but said there’s not a minimum in cuts they would support.
"I think most people just want a more conservative budget, I think they thought these were reasonable recommendations and if they’re met with some degree of sincerity and accommodation, I think most Republicans will be content," Burris said. "Not satisfied, but content that we’ve done our job of impacting the budget in a way we felt was positive."