- Associated Press - Thursday, March 6, 2014

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas lawmakers advanced a plan Thursday to tap nearly $22 million from the surplus to pay for the prison system, school broadband and other one-time needs as they got their first look at legislation detailing the state’s $5 billion budget.

Legislation endorsed by the Joint Budget Committee whittled down the list of more than $92 million in projects that Gov. Mike Beebe and lawmakers had wanted to fund using the state’s projected $126 million surplus. House and Senate leaders agreed to leave most of the state’s surplus untouched, saying the money should be left alone in case of emergencies or financial downturns.

“I’m sure you share my sentiment knowing that as we’ve gone through these last couple years and these tough economic times, it was nice knowing that we’ve had large surpluses under the pillow, so to speak, if anything came up,” House Speaker Davy Carter told the panel as he detailed the proposal.

The agreement paves the way for lawmakers to consider the state budget bill, officially known as the Revenue Stabilization Act, which legislative leaders unveiled Thursday night.

The measure largely mirrors the budget proposal Beebe detailed in January. It calls for a $108 million increase in spending, including more than $65 million for the state’s public schools. The proposal also increases funding for the prison system to address crowding as a result of the state overhauling its probation policies.

Beebe and legislative leaders said there were few disputes over the budget, which was expected to go before the Joint Budget Committee on Friday morning. Releasing the budget legislation allows the House and Senate to vote on the budget next week and wrap up this year’s session.

“The contentious stuff you just heard was on the one-time money,” Beebe told reporters. “That was the contentious stuff.”

The state’s prison system is set to receive a large chunk of the surplus money under the bills advanced Thursday, with $5 million set to go toward paying Department of Correction employees’ banked holiday compensation and $4.2 million going to reimburse counties for housing state prisoners. It also includes $719,873 to open 200 new prison beds.

The plan also calls for $5 million in surplus funds to go toward broadband for schools and another $5 million for short-term loans for charter schools for building projects.

The panel rejected two other proposals to tap into the surplus that weren’t part of the plan hashed out by House and Senate leaders. They included using $2 million from the surplus to boost funding for the state’s pre-kindergarten program and $10 million to improve the conditions of the state’s Human Development Centers for the developmentally disabled.

Sen. Jason Rapert, who had proposed the additional money for the Human Development Centers, earlier Thursday said he would push for the increased funding when the Legislature returns for its regular session in January.

“I am committed fully to making sure that they quit getting overlooked,” Rapert, R-Conway, said. “We’re going to fund new programs and expand a budget by over $100 million and literally not do anything for the least among those in Arkansas. I feel it’s a dereliction of duty.”

A lawmaker who had pushed for the pre-K funding said that money would help the state avoid needing more funds for crowded prisons in the future.

“We’re going to fund $9 million or so on the prison pipeline,” Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said. “It’s money we have to spend. I’m not countering that. What I’m asking of you as a body to consider is we are so much better off if we are addressing that pipeline before it’s started, and it’s undisputable pre-K is the way to do that.”

The budget measure is the last major issue facing lawmakers as they try to finish a session that had been dominated by debate over the future of the state’s compromise Medicaid expansion. The House on Tuesday gave final approval to legislation reauthorizing the “private option” plan to use federal Medicaid funds to purchase insurance for the poor.


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

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