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Governor Beebe's weekly column and radio address: Budget Decisions Ahead

The members of the Arkansas General Assembly return to the Capitol in February for the 2014 Fiscal Session. This will be the third such session since voters changed the Arkansas Constitution in the 2008 election. Only budget bills are considered when the Legislature convenes, making it a quicker and less expensive undertaking than the regular sessions that occur in odd-numbered years.

For the first time, I am considering giving support to a legislative effort that would propose one policy-related bill to change an existing law. Lawmakers are currently discussing a vote to give any governor more discretion regarding special elections when there is a vacancy in the Lieutenant Governor’s Office, as we appear to be facing next month.

Regardless, the vast majority of the fiscal session will be spent on Arkansas’s budget. Legislative budget hearings are already under way, and this week the Department of Finance and Administration presented my proposed balanced budget for the next fiscal year, which runs from July to June. And whatever budget the Legislature approves this session will take effect this summer.

My proposed budget is very similar to the numbers projected for Fiscal Year 2015 before last year’s regular session. Some changes have been made as the State’s needs have changed over the past year. The most notable of these involves our Corrections system. Recent changes in our parole-and-probation procedures have put a lot more people back behind bars, and of course it costs money to keep them there. I have proposed increases to open 300 more prison beds, as well as to ensure that counties are compensated for the increasing numbers of inmates they house.

In education, foundation funding will increase again by two percent to keep pace with adequacy requirements, and, as promised, we are moving some monies to bolster the public-school employee insurance plan. For our colleges and universities, I’ve included targeted, need-based increases to growing campuses in hopes of slowing tuition increases for our students and their families.

The most talked-about part of the budget remains funding for the Department of Human Services. The Arkansas Private Option has become a national model for states seeking flexibility under the Affordable Care Act. It has already brought insurance coverage to more than 77,000 Arkansans, with tens of thousands more soon to qualify. It has attracted younger people to our insurance exchange, a necessity to keep insurance affordable in the future. The anticipated influx of federal funds will save an estimated $89 million for our State in the next fiscal year. However, the funding for the Private Option must be re-approved by three-quarters of the General Assembly. While the benefits to our people, hospitals and communities are clear, ideological differences will again make it a close vote. If the Private Option fails, many Arkansans will lose their health care, and tough cuts will need to be decided for other state services, as well.

This is all a process of conflict and compromise that always ends with Arkansas achieving its mandated balanced budget. Our Revenue Stabilization Act is the envy of other states, and will again ensure that we emerge from the Fiscal Session with a responsible budget for the coming fiscal year.