The Saline Courier Weekend

Legislativ­e session off to smooth start


The 2023 legislativ­e session got off to a smooth start. The full Senate confirmed the governor’s secretaria­l nomination­s, and Senate committees got their initial organizati­onal meetings out of the way.

The governor had named 14 of a possible 15 cabinet nominees, and the Senate quickly confirmed her selections. The head of the Department of Finance and Administra­tion, the Department of

Labor and Licensing and the Department of Agricultur­e will continue in the positions they held under the previous administra­tion.

The other appointees are new. The new secretarie­s of three large and important agencies, Education, Correction­s and Human Services, have many years of experience in their fields but are new to Arkansas government.

Also during the first week of the session, the legislatur­e approved the General Appropriat­ion Bill. Under the state Constituti­on, it must be approved before any other spending measures are approved.

Appropriat­ions generally don’t garner the same amount of public attention as other bills, but it is the legislatur­e’s constituti­onal duty to approve budgets for state government. The Joint Budget Committee and its subcommitt­ees will meet more often than any other committees.

Legislator­s will prioritize spending levels in the state’s $6.3 billion general revenue fund. State agency budgets will reflect the political values of Arkansas as much as bills related to so-called “hot button” issues.

State agency budgets reflect our political priorities because they determine how much state government will spend on public schools, health care, law enforcemen­t, welfare and food stamps, higher education, job training, promoting our tourism industry, equipping our National Guard units and protecting the environmen­t.

Last year the legislatur­e enacted about 220 separate appropriat­ions for state agency budgets.

The general revenue fund is the state’s largest discretion­ary fund. The major sources of revenue are sales taxes, individual income taxes and corporate income taxes.

Highway constructi­on and maintenanc­e are the responsibi­lity of the state Transporta­tion Department, which gets revenue from gasoline and diesel taxes and registrati­on fees paid by heavy vehicles.

Those are called special revenues because they are dedicated to maintainin­g highways and bridges, and are not considered during legislativ­e debates about how to spend general revenue.

Arkansas operates under a balanced budget law known as the Revenue Stabilizat­ion Act. It will be one of the last bills considered toward the end of the session, probably in mid to late March or early April.

It prioritize­s the state’s budget in the event of an economic downtown that slows or reduces the collection of state taxes.

If tax revenue drops, spending will be reduced accordingl­y.

Fiscal decisions are different for Congress in Washington, D.C. because the federal government can deficit spend, which means it can borrow money for annual operations. The state legislatur­e must balance its annual operating budget, so it sometimes has to make difficult choices about which programs are funded and which ones are not.

About 42 percent of the state’s general revenue budget goes for public schools and 13 percent goes for higher education.

Health and human services account for about 31 percent. Public safety and prisons account for about 10 percent.

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