LITTLE ROCK — A legislative panel on Thursday endorsed a plan to spend nearly $22 million of the state’s projected $125 million budget surplus, settling on a handful of the more than $90 million in projects that legislators and Gov. Mike Beebe had proposed.
The Joint Budget Committee advanced the package of surplus spending proposals, which was negotiated behind closed doors Thursday afternoon. Lawmakers said that sometime Thursday night they expected to complete work on the state budget bill, known as the Revenue Stabilization Act, in which the Legislature sets its spending priorities for the coming fiscal year.
The budget panel is expected to take up the budget bill Friday morning. If the panel advances the bill, the House and Senate could approve it next week to complete the work of the fiscal session.
Beebe and legislative leaders said the final budget would contain no major differences from Beebe’s $5 billion proposed balanced budget, which included proposed increases in spending on prisons and public schools.
The surplus spending package that the budget panel endorsed for one-time needs included $719,873 for 200 new prison beds; $4.2 million to reimburse county jails for holding state prisoners; $5 million for Department of Correction employees’ banked holiday compensation; $5 million for loans to charter schools to build facilities; $5 million for grants to schools for broadband; and $2 million for the state Department of Health’s breast care program.
Beebe had requested surplus money for all but the breast care program. The budget panel endorsed spending a little over half of the amount Beebe requested.
The governor told reporters later, "I thought what was needed was the full amount we requested, but we’ll make it work the best we can."
He also said he understood the desire to limit surplus spending, saying, "It’s always good to keep a lot of seed corn."
The budget panel rejected proposals to spend $2 million of the surplus on early childhood education and $10 million on the state’s Human Development Centers.
House Speaker Davy Carter, R-Cabot, advocated limiting surplus spending to the negotiated package.
"As we’ve gone through these last couple of years in these tough economic times, it’s been pretty nice knowing that we had large surpluses under the pillow, so to speak," he said.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, urged the panel to endorse the early-childhood education proposal, saying it was needed to keep programs going in communities around the state.
Elliott said that while spending money on prisons is necessary, "we are so much better off if we are addressing that pipeline before it gets started, and it is indisputable that pre-K is the major way to do that."
Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, said that the various proposals were "all very worthy, but it’s our job to be responsible and have a budget."
The pre-K proposal failed in a 20-12 vote, falling short of the 29 votes it needed to clear the committee. The Human Development Centers proposal failed in a voice vote.