Time has come to con­sider 2019 bud­gets

The Times (Northeast Benton County) - - OPINION - Ed­i­tor’s note: Arkansas Se­na­tor Ce­cile Bled­soe rep­re­sents the third dis­trict. From Rogers, Sen. Bled­soe is chair of the Pub­lic Health, Wel­fare and La­bor Com­mit­tee. CE­CILE BLED­SOE Arkansas Se­na­tor

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 time­con­sum­ing 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 Jan. 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 Nov. 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.

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