LITTLE ROCK — With a potentially pivotal election looming, Arkansas legislators opened budget hearings Tuesday in advance of the 2013 legislative session.
The 83 members of the Legislative Council and Joint Budget Committee drew seating assignments and reviewed the budgeting procedures in the first step of a process that will be highlighted by presentation of Gov. Mike Beebe’s revenue forecast and $4.5 billion balanced budget proposal for the fiscal year that begins next June 30.
The presentation won’t come until Nov. 15, just over a week after the Nov. 6 general election in which Republicans anticipate winning majorities in the state House and Senate for the first time since Reconstruction and refocusing budget priorities, possibly to put more emphasis on tax cuts and less on Beebe’s desire to expand the Medicaid program to add about 250,000 people.
Tuesday afternoon, lawmakers began reviewing spending proposals for cash-generating agencies. Budgets of major agencies — state prisons, the Department of Education and the state Department of Human Services — that depend heavily on state revenues to operate will come later.
Rep. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, the likely choice for House Speaker in a GOP-led state House, said the fall budget hearings are an opportunity for lawmakers to identify state needs and set a budget course.
"We need to get an idea of where we’re going. We know we’ve got a Medicaid deficit that is very serious, and we need to address that. I feel like that is one of the major concerns," Rice said, referring to projections of a $250 million to $400 million Medicaid shortfall next fiscal year. "Education also always is. We’ll be looking at budgets, doing the best we can to meet the needs, but not exceed the needs."
Richard Weiss, director of the state Department of Finance and Administration, said recent GOP talk of budgeting more conservatively was "political rhetoric to me."
"The reality is that this has been a very conservative state. We’ve always budgeted conservatively, that’s what has held us in good stead through the course of this last recession," Weiss said.
Arkansas, which is barred by law from deficit spending, is among a handful of states that have operated in the black for years and currently has a $192 million surplus.
Rice said he expects tax cuts to be on the minds of most Republicans during the fall budget hearings and they will be considered, along with any proposed by the governor.
"As the talk comes on that, well that’s part of this process," he said. "We’re going to prioritize and let (legislators) see where possibilities are, but these are things the governor continues to ask for, his priorities, the grocery tax and he’s said something to the effect … ‘when possible’, and I appreciate that, but we need to look at priorities. Jobs in Arkansas and the economy are on everybody’s minds and we need to focus on that too."