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Legislature prepping for 2019 session

By submitted, 10/20/18 8:55 AM

LITTLE ROCK – The legislature has begun budget hearings in preparation for the 2019 regular session.

Generally, budget bills do not generate as much publicity as high-profile social measures, such as bills affecting firearms, unborn children or school choice. However, for many legislators the most time-consuming responsibility is consideration of state agency budgets.

Lawmakers begin work on budgets in mid-October, and put the finishing touches on the state’s budget in March of the following year, in the final days of the session. The 2019 legislative session begins on January 14.

State government is in Fiscal Year 2019, which will end on June 30, 2019. Legislators are now working on proposed budgets for Fiscal Year 2020, which begins on July 1, 2019.

The state general revenue budget for this year is about $5.63 billion, and at the end of the fiscal year there will be an estimated surplus of about $64 million. One of the challenges for lawmakers will be to estimate how much the Arkansas economy will expand next year. That estimate will determine how much state agencies will have to spend.

A red letter date is November 14, when the governor presents a balanced budget plan for next fiscal year, based on the most recent revenue forecast. The governor’s balanced budget proposal will also set the stage for serious discussions about tax cuts, and how much income tax relief is possible.

The proposed balanced budget will be the starting point for debate over fiscal matters, such as how much to spend on public education and school safety, how much should the Medicaid program receive and whether any state agencies should get a greater budget increase than all the others.

It is not unusual for an agency to receive a bigger-than-average increase in funding, compared to the rest of state government. For example, in 2017 the governor proposed and the legislature approved funding increases for the foster care system that were proportionately much greater than increases approved for other agencies. The goal was to reverse a recent trend of high turnover among staff, and extended periods in which children had to wait for placement with foster families.

This year there are 36,516 authorized employee positions in state government, and another 39,878 positions in higher education.

Public schools from kindergarten through grade 12 receive the single largest share of state general revenue, about 41 percent, but teachers and other school staff are not counted among the total of state government employees.

The largest agency is the Department of Human Services, with 8,357 employees spread throughout various divisions. The largest branch within the department is the Division of Developmental Disabilities Services, with 2,597 positions.

The Department of Transportation, which maintains highways, has 4,712 positions. The Correction Department, which runs prisons, has 4,740 positions and the Department of Community Correction, which hires parole officers and staffs halfway houses and drug courts, has 1,488 positions.

Law enforcement also is provided by three other state agencies. There are 1,063 employee positions in the Arkansas State Police and 144 in the state Crime Lab. The Arkansas Crime Information Center (ACIC) does criminal background checks and runs license numbers for local police departments and law enforcement agencies. It also keeps the sex offender registry up to date. ACIC has 74 authorized positions.