BEEBE TO SEEK EDUCATION, PRISON INCREASES
LITTLE ROCK — Budget hearings in advance of next month’s fiscal session are to begin this week, and Gov. Mike Beebe says he will ask for additional funding to open more than 300 new prison beds and to reimburse counties for housing state inmates.
Beebe also plans to seek additional higher education funding to help some institutions that have seen drastic increases in student enrollment.
The governor declined to be specific, but he said the increases he plans to seek would be "relatively small, but they are targeted."
Richard Weiss, the state’s chief fiscal officer, is set to president the Beebe administration’s proposed balanced budget for the new fiscal year that begins July when budget hearings convene Tuesday.
The state’s current operating budget is about $4.7 billion.
Legislators can begin pre-filing bills Monday for the fiscal session that begins Feb. 10. Amendment 86 limits fiscal sessions held in even years to 30 days, with one 15-day extension allowed by a three-fourths vote in both the House and Senate.
Under rules previously approved by the Joint Budget Committee, lawmakers will only consider budgets for what are known as "the big six": Department of Education Public School Fund Account, institutions of higher education, Department of Human Services, Department of Health, Department of Correction and the Department of Community Correction.
If a lawmaker wanted another department or agency budget reviewed, the measure would need a two-thirds majority of both chambers for consideration.
"I hope that what we’ll do is go in there, hear those big six and … let the staff prepare the bills along the governor’s recommendation just because that’s a lot of work and they need to get that done," Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, said last week. "Then, we can do whatever we need to when we come back in February."
Teague said he expected extensive discussion when lawmakers review the DHS budget because of funding proposed for the so-called "private option," Arkansas’ program for using federal Medicaid money to expand health care coverage to low-income Arkansans under the federal Affordable Act.
Beebe said he expects lawmakers to renew the program approved during the 2013 regular session.
"I guess people could change their mind. I don’t know why they would, nothing has changed," he said. "There’s no reason for them to change based on facts."
As of Friday, 75,832 Arkansans had enrolled for health coverage through the private option, according to DHS. Of those enrolled, 68,434 were covered by a private health insurance plan, and the agency determined that 7,398 of the applicants would be better served through the traditional Medicaid program.
Sen. Bryan King, R-Green Forrest, an ardent opponent of the private option, said he expects an attempt to be made to repeal or at least amend the private option during the budget hearings.
"I think there are some others that are working on some different proposals, but the main thing is … with the uncertainty of the federal government, the fact that the federal deficit is continuing to grow and rise, and we’re signing these people up with money the feds don’t have," King said.
An audit of the private option requested by Legislative Joint Auditing Committee of the private option is expected to be released later this month. King, who is co-chairman of the committee and requested the audit, said he wants to know how many people have enrolled and how much has been spent.
Though Beebe declined to be specific about increases in his proposed budget for 2014-15, the governor told the Arkansas News Bureau last week that some of the additional funds would be used to address state prison overcrowding and the backup of state prisoners in county jails.
"There are 2,500-2,600 [state inmates] backed up in county jails and we’ve got to do something," he said, noting that the Department of Correction also has several hundred prison beds ready for use but doesn’t have money for operating costs.
Sheila Sharp, director of the state Department of Community Correction, estimated in November it would take an additional $1.1 million to pay county jails through the end of the current fiscal year. Shea Wilson, spokeswoman for the state Department of Correction, said an additional $6.6 million in funding to help pay counties for jail space will be sought for 2014-15.
Lawmakers were also told in November that the Department of Correction would need an additional $8.2 million next fiscal year to open 100 beds at the McPherson Unit in Newport, 100 beds at the North Central Unit at Calico Rock, 88 beds at the Malvern Unit and 52 beds at the Northwest Arkansas Work Release Center in Springdale which are ready but have yet to be funded.
Beebe said additional funding will also be requested for some higher education institutions.
"The reason equity needs to be addressed is because the gap, if you are not careful, gets bigger and bigger based on growth," he said. "You’ve got some institutions that are growing and some of their per student equity numbers are way off, compared to some that are stagnant."