- Associated Press - Wednesday, April 27, 2016

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A legislative panel on Wednesday rejected a proposed $10 million funding increase for Arkansas’ pre-kindergarten program, and a top lawmaker said he was hopeful money cut from the state’s libraries last year would be restored.

Democrats pushed for the funding increases as legislative leaders said they hoped to wrap up by late next week a session that’s focused on the state’s budget for the coming year. The proposal to increase funding for the Arkansas Better Chance program failed by a 13-22, party-line vote before the Joint Budget Committee. The top Democrat in the House called for increasing funding for the program from $111 million to $121 million.

“It’s really frustrating to see a vote come down on a party line vote when really I feel like this is an opportunity to put the future of Arkansas’ workforce above politics of the day,” House Minority Leader Michael John Gray said after the vote.

Gray and other Democrats in the majority-Republican Legislature have been long pushing for expanding the state’s pre-kindergarten program, which hasn’t received a funding increase in several years. Republican Gov. Asa Hutchinson last year set aside $3 million in additional one-time money for the program.

“This is a minuscule amount of money and we’re talking about our kids,” Democratic Sen. Linda Chesterfield said. “Our kids continue to start out behind. We know if our kids start out behind, they stay behind.”

Top Republicans said they didn’t believe there was room for the funding increase in the $5.3 billion budget proposed for the coming year.

“There’s a lot of other areas that have been held flat that would love to have more money,” House Speaker Jeremy Gillam said after the vote. “Everybody would love to have more money, but it’s not necessarily a responsible thing for us to do, to start writing checks just because someone’s asked for money.”

Democrats have also been pushing to restore $1 million that was cut from the state’s libraries last year. Two proposals pending before the budget panel call for tapping into the state’s surplus to restore the money.

“I think we remain optimistic that we will put it in Revenue Stabilization,” said Democratic Sen. Larry Teague, who co-chairs the budget panel, referring to the legislation outlining the state’s budget.

The panel also advanced a proposal to spend $750,000 to upgrade the state’s system for filing and searching campaign finance reports. The measure by Republican Rep. Jana Della Rosa now heads to the House for a vote.

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

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