Wednesday, Feb 22, 2012
Legislators Debate State Government Budgets During First Week of 2012 Fiscal Session
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LITTLE ROCK - The Arkansas legislature finished the first week of the 2012 fiscal session with clear political lines drawn in the sand. On one side are lawmakers who support a conservative budget for state government and on the other are those who favor an even more conservative budget.
The back-and-forth between Democrats and Republicans this year is the first time in memory that the two major political parties have contested budget issues so closely. In that respect, the 2012 fiscal session represents a first in Arkansas political history.
Unlike the federal government, the state of Arkansas operates under a balanced budget law. Whatever the outcome of the political wrangling at the state Capitol, state government will not spend more than it takes in next year.
The governor has proposed a balanced budget and the legislature's Joint Budget Committee is going over it line by line. It would authorize about $4.7 billion in spending from the general revenue fund next year.
If the economy slows and tax revenue declines, state agencies will impose spending cuts. Under the Arkansas balanced budget law, known as the Revenue Stabilization Act, state government will live within its means.
In the first week of the fiscal session an alternative budget was presented by Republican lawmakers that would trim about $21 million in spending from the governor's proposed $4.7 billion budget. Both Republicans and Democrats expressed confidence that a compromise is very workable, and that the fiscal session should not bog down in a partisan gridlock as so often happens at the federal level in Washington.
Even though the Democratic Party dominated legislative politics throughout the 20th century, there have always been political factions that consistently opposed each other. For example, lawmakers from small towns and isolated districts would join forces to get highway construction projects completed in rural areas.
Another historical division within the legislature has been over funding of small schools, as balanced against the need to financially support larger school districts.
Some news reports have been confusing because of the complexity of getting bills introduced and passed during a fiscal session. The constitutional amendment that created fiscal sessions in Arkansas is written so as to limit the legislature to considering only budget bills, but there is a mechanism for considering non-budget bills. To file a non-budget bill, a lawmaker has to win adoption of a resolution, which then must be approved by a two-thirds majority of each chamber, the House and the Senate.
As odd as it sounds, the Revenue Stabilization Act, our balanced budget law, is not a budget bill because it does not appropriate funding for a specific agency. It prioritizes state spending in the event revenue fluctuates next year. Because it is not a budget bill, it cannot be introduced until each chamber adopts a resolution to do so, by a two-thirds vote.
Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans have a solid two-thirds majority. In the 100-member House there are 46 Republicans and 54 Democrats. In the 35-member Senate there are 20 Democrats and 15 Republicans. Therefore, any budget agreement will require each party to compromise.
Another quirk in the state Constitution is that appropriation bills require a supermajority of three-fourths of each chamber for approval. That is a guarantee that the final budget agreement will be the product of a political compromise.