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Ark. lawmakers move closer toward budget bill

By Andrew DeMillo
Associated Press / February 22, 2012
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LITTLE ROCK, Ark.—Arkansas lawmakers moved closer Wednesday toward drafting the state's budget for the coming year, but the top Republican in the House said he and Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe still remained far from an agreement as they swapped ideas on spending cuts.

The House and Senate approved identical resolutions that would allow Beebe's budget proposal to be introduced. It still has to clear one more procedural hurdle. Republicans are a minority in both chambers of the Legislature, but hold enough votes to block Beebe's budget from being considered.

House Minority Leader John Burris urged other Republicans to vote for the resolution, which passed the House 91-1. He said it was a sign they were willing to negotiate and move forward with the budget process.

"Today was essentially House Republicans saying we're not willing to shut it down," Burris told reporters after the vote. "We've made our very reasonable recommendations. We've been repeatedly told no, but we're at a point where we're going to have to pass a budget. We've made a good faith effort here to negotiate and present alternatives."

The votes in the House and Senate came after Burris presented Beebe with a scaled-down spending cut plan and the governor detailed more than $678,000 that he's willing to cut from his budget.

Burris originally proposed cutting Beebe's budget proposal by $21 million by reducing several agencies' spending and changing the way a proposed increase in the Medicaid budget would be funded. Beebe said this week that he was opposed to most of the spending cut proposals.

Under the new proposal, Burris said he called for $2.4 million in cuts and using $40 million from the state's surplus to pay for Medicaid needs. Burris said $14 million of the surplus would go toward the $114 million increase Beebe has proposed, and the remaining money would be put in a trust fund for a shortfall the program is expected to face in 2013.

Beebe has said he's opposed to using surplus money to pay for part of Medicaid.

Beebe has said the original budget cut proposal by Burris would lead to the layoffs of at least 61 state employees and affect an array of services. On Wednesday, the governor detailed $678,586 in cuts he would be willing to make in his budget proposal.

The cuts would affect the Labor Department, Higher Education Department, Department of Environmental Quality, Arkansas Science and Technology Authority and the Natural Resources Commission.

"I've gone as far as I know how to go and have a clear conscience about being responsible on the essential services," Beebe said.

Beebe's $4.7 billion budget calls for the Medicaid increase and a $56 million funding increase for public schools, but would keep most other agencies flat. The Republican proposal wouldn't affect the public school funding.

Moments after the House vote, the Senate approved an identical resolution on a 33-0 vote. One of the resolutions must be approved by both chambers before the proposed Revenue Stabilization Act -- the funding mechanism for the state's budget -- can be introduced. Monday is the deadline for the bill to be introduced.

The resolution needs at least 67 votes in the House and 24 in the Senate, but the bill itself needs only a simple majority in both chambers. One Republican lawmaker said he believed the budget bill ultimately wouldn't change much from what Beebe has proposed.

"I don't think there's any room for a major compromise," said Sen. Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville.

House Speaker Robert Moore said he planned to bring the Senate resolution before the House for a vote Thursday morning and was hopeful it would also pass.

"I would think anything now in the form of action to block concurrence would be taking a position of stopping the process from moving forward," said Moore, D-Arkansas City. "I think we'd get dangerously close to Washington-style politics and I don't think that's what the people of Arkansas want."

Senate leaders said they did not know when they might vote on the House version of the budget resolution.

"I think we're getting close enough in discussions where folks felt like they could take that first step," said Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, who co-chairs the Joint Budget Committee.

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Andrew DeMillo can be reached at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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