Friday, February 05, 2010

TOP STORY >> Lawmakers heading back to work

Leader senior staff writer

Sen. Bobby Glover (D-Carlisle) is no fan of the historic legislative financial session that will get under way Monday, but Glover, who is ineligible to run again because of term limits, will be there to begin his last session.

The General Assembly is expected to consider two pieces of business, both at least loosely fitting into the “fiscal” category.

The first is expected to set at $5,000 a year the amount of lottery-generated scholarship money available to Arkansas students attending Arkansas colleges, the second to use money from the General Improvement Fund to pay the state’s debt to county jails for holding state prisoners.

The General Assembly historically had been a biennial body, meeting on the odd years after an election, and reconvening after that only when the governor called a special session.

Voters in the last general election approved a constitutional amendment calling for the General Assembly to meet annually, with the odd-year session covering all matters, and the even-year session devoted only to fiscal matters unless consideration of other matters is approved by a three-fourths majority.

“We’ve had budget hearings, we’re having some more, and everything pretty well worked,” Glover said. “I still don’t think it’s necessary, but there’s nothing I can do about it.”

Glover said when the session, which could last 30 days, is over, then he’s going to find out how much it cost the taxpayers.

“I don’t know of anything the governor and the head of the Department of Finance and Administration couldn’t have done. I don’t see a lot coming out of it.”

Glover said the anticipated budget cuts in response to the recent downturn in revenues may not have to be as deep as originally anticipated. “This last month we came out of the red for the first time in months,” Glover said. “I talked to the governor last night. He said, ‘Looking pretty good this month.’”

“I think (the session) will confirm very close to what the people put in an amendment they passed, dealing for the most part with budgetary and fiscal matters,” said Sen. John Paul Capps (D-Searcy).

Capps, like Glover, is in the last year of his eligibility. “From what I hear, (the leadership) wants to keep it confined to the fiscal issues for the one-year budget we are authorized to put into effect.”

He said the governor had talked about using the General Improvement Fund money to pay the state’s jail bill to the counties.

“That would be one way to use the money.”

“We’re plowing new ground,” he said of the fiscal session. “We want to stay as close to the wording of the amendment as possible and conclude in 30 days or less.”

“I think we’ll just stick to nothing but budget bills,” said Rep. Jane English, a Republican who represents much of north Pulaski County, “one for the lottery and the scholarships and the revenue stabilization bill.”

“We have a (balanced budget) law going back to 1945,” she said. “That’s why the governor cut the $200 million.”

She said those cuts had been identified and would be in the bills considered this time.

Sen. Gilbert Baker (R-Conway) and Rep. Bruce Maloch (D-Magnolia) had determined what would be in those bills.

“The governor’s tried real hard to do these across the board,” she said. “It’s a complicated process and federal money on top of it. In a lot of ways there’s some fluff built in.”

English’s fellow area Republican, state Rep. Davy Carter of Cabot, did not return phone calls.

Rep. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe), said although approving the governor’s budget is the reason for the even-year session, the legislature also will set lottery scholarships at $2,500 for two-year schools and $5,000 for four-year schools.

Although Gov. Mike Beebe prefers smaller amounts of $1,300 and $2,600 for current college students, he has said he will sign into law the larger amounts if approved by the legislature.

And even though the governor has asked legislators to limit their actions to budget matters as called for in the constitutional amendment setting the yearly session for budgets, Dismang said other legislation is almost certain to be introduced.

This is tax season, and Dismang, an accountant with a Little Rock firm, said getting away from his day job for the three to four week legislative session will not be easy.

“I’m putting in extra hours now,” he said, adding that he is not ruling out the possibility of some night work to take care of his clients.

“We’ve been doing joint budget meetings for three weeks,” said Rep. Mark Perry (D-Jacksonville). “This will be strictly on the budget, with changes of the lottery commission bill authorizing $5,000 annual scholarship awards.”

“We’re all kind of anxious to start,” Perry said.

“I know the speaker wants it to be a short, sweet, easy deal and anyone that tries to raise an issue will be shot down,” said Rep. Walls McCrary (D-Lonoke). “We’ll have to pass the lottery scholarship bill and maybe some minor things that help the process along.”

McCrary said he thought both bodies would consider using at least part of the $15 million left in the General Improvement Fund to reimburse counties for keeping state prisoners in their jails.

“The governor would love us to use that to send to the county jails to pay for the prisoners that the state put in there and can’t pay for,” McCrary said. “We don’t need to saddle the county jails.”

“It’s going to be a short session,” predicted Rep. Jim Nichols (D-Sherwood). “I don’t expect us to go the full 30 days.”

Nichols said that budget hearings last month went “pretty smooth.”

“Because we aren’t going to spend more than what we have, it actually makes it easier on us,” he said.

Nichols said some state agencies and departments would take a hit because of the weak economy.

“So much of our money goes for K-12 education and it has too which means other areas have to cover the shortfalls,” Nickles said.

Leader staff writers Joan McCoy and Rick Kron contributed to this report.