From the historic hallways of the most beautiful state Capitol in our great nation, this is Senator Keith Ingram.
The governor has presented a balanced budget plan for next fiscal year, and legislators had mixed reactions to some of his ideas.
It’s important to keep in mind that the legislature has the responsibility, under the Arkansas Constitution, to finalize budgets for all state government agencies.
We have been working on budgets since mid-October, going over state agency spending requests with a fine-toothed comb.
The enormous task of adopting a state budget won’t be finalized until next March or April, when the 2021 legislative session draws to a close.
The governor’s proposal is one of many that are being discussed every day at the Capitol. It’s important because it sets spending priorities for every single branch in state government.
For example, state prisons would get an additional $5.6 million a year in operating funds. That’s an increase of 3.9 percent.
The State Police would get an additional $3.2 million under the governor’s plan. That’s an increase of about 12 percent. Plus, their fleet would get a much needed infusion of $3 million for new vehicles.
The Public School Fund would increase by 1.4 percent, to about $2.25 billion. This is the account that distributes state aid to local school districts.
Legislators will be looking for every possible avenue to help schools do their jobs during the pandemic. Unlike last year, they need extra cleaning supplies, masks, protective equipment and the computer technology they need for online classes.
The Human Services Department is in line to get a funding increase of 4.8 percent. It’s our largest state agency, with multiple divisions.
It administers Medicaid, services for people with disabilities, long-term care facilities, drug treatment programs and benefits for low-income families such as food stamps. The department also operates secure detention facilities for juveniles who get in trouble.
The governor wants to increase state funding for four-year universities from $575 million to $612 million. Support for two-year colleges would increase from $112 million to $118 million.
Arkansas has five technical colleges and they would get a funding increase from $31 million to $32 million.
Serving in the legislature requires a lot of numbers-crunching. Approving budgets is sometimes referred to as “the power of the purse strings,” and it is the most time-consuming duty of the legislature.
It takes years to master the budget process, and lawmakers who focus on appropriation bills become influential with their colleagues, and usually end up in leadership positions.
One final thought, which I mention whenever I get the opportunity - Arkansas is a fiscally conservative state.
Operating under a balanced budget requires legislatures to make numerous difficult decisions.
It would be so much easier if we had a credit card with no limit. But that is a short-sighted fiscal policy, and we’ve seen the financial mess it has created in Washington.
It may require tough decisions, but over the long run Arkansas elected officials have learned that it’s best to operate like a typical family, and live within our means.
From the Capitol, it is always my great honor and sincere privilege to serve you as your state Senator. This is Keith Ingram.