- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 4, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas lawmakers gave initial approval to a proposed $5.3 billion state budget for the coming year on Wednesday, along with support for an effort to impose new limits on how welfare benefits can be spent.

The House and Senate approved identical versions of the proposed Revenue Stabilization Act, which sets spending priorities based on expected funding for the fiscal year that begins July 1. Both chambers are expected to give final approval to the measure Thursday before recessing this year’s session.

The measure closely mirrors the budget Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed in March, with a $142.7 million increase in state spending tabbed mostly for Medicaid, the state’s child welfare system and public schools.

“It’s not exactly what I would have presented, but it’s a consensus from both chambers and both parties,” Republican Rep. Lane Jean, who co-chairs the Joint Budget Committee, said before the vote. “It’s a good budget and we’ll go on out with it.”

The state budget proposal passed the House on an 85-7 vote with six members voting present. The Senate voted 25-6 in favor of the measure.

A handful of lawmakers opposed the proposal, including Democrats who complained about attempts to boost funding by $10 million for the state’s pre-kindergarten program - which hasn’t had a funding increase in several years - being rebuffed.

“I do believe our spending priorities are wrong and that we should include something about the future of this state, which is pre-K,” Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield said before the vote.

In the House, Republican Rep. Donnie Copeland cited pre-K and the state’s waiting list for home-based services for the developmentally disabled as needs that were being ignored by the budget bill.

“I think it’s deplorable. I think it’s actually a sin,” Copeland said.

The House approved a measure requiring the state to seek new restrictions on how Temporary Assistance for Needy Families benefits can be spent. The proposal requires Arkansas to seek a federal waiver restricting TANF benefits to being used for food, clothing, housing utilities, child care and incidentals. The state would also be required to seek a waiver restricting the use of TANF benefit cards for withdrawing cash.

The restriction was included in the budget bill for the Department of Workforce Services, which administers the TANF program. The department’s budget bill passed on an 80-11 vote and now heads to the Senate.

Democrats have called the restrictions unnecessary and said they would punish families who may need to withdraw cash or use the benefits for something not covered by the restrictions, such as a school field trip. But the top House Democrat said they weren’t willing to block the entire department’s funding over the issue.

“We still maintain that that amendment was outrageous, that it was unnecessary, that it was pure coffee-shop, Washington, D.C., politics,” said House Minority Leader Michael John Gray, a Democrat from Augusta. “It was not what Arkansans want us to do with their money and their time.

Senate President Jonathan Dismang also won re-election Wednesday to lead the 35-member chamber for another two-year term. The Republican from Beebe did not face any opposition in his re-election bid.

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Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

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