The 2012 Fiscal Session Starts Next Week

We are less than a week away from the convening of the 2012 General Assembly.  Lawmakers return to Little Rock this month for the “fiscal session” in which they are to consider budget bills to fund state government through the next fiscal year.  This is only the second session of its kind after voters approved annual legislative sessions in 2008.  After more than a month of pre-session budget hearings, most observers seem to expect a relatively smooth meeting of legislators.

At Arkansas Advocates for Children & Families, we have three policy areas that we plan to monitor as they go through the appropriations process.  The first is the Department of Education budget, which funds K-12 education in addition to pre-K programs statewide. Governor Mike Beebe proposed a limited increase in funding in the interest of maintaining court-mandated spending levels for education adequacy.  As with all the budgetary proposals from the Governor’s office, he did this without proposing any tax increases.  Pre-session hearings indicated that there would be minimal debate over the ADE budget, but we all know things can change once lawmakers gather at the capitol.

We also plan to watch closely the proposed Medicaid funding level.  The Medicaid budget is slated to receive a $114 million increase, per legislative approval.  With health care costs on the rise and an expected uptick in the number of Arkansans enrolling in the Medicaid program, this increase is necessary to make sure there is no disruption in benefits for low-income Arkansans – mostly children and seniors.  Some lawmakers have indicated their desire to use some of that money to pay for tax cuts to wealthy Arkansans.  AACF opposes this plan and will track it carefully.

Finally, we also need to ensure that none of the smaller, but no less critical programs for vulnerable children and families slip below the radar screen and get cut. These include agency budgets such as those for child welfare (DHS Division of Children & Family Services-DCFS) and juvenile justice (DHS Division of Youth Services-DYS).  DYS, for example, stands to lose another $1.5 million in funding next year (on top of the loss of stimulus funding it took this year) if general revenue is not allocated to replace general improvement funds that have helped pay for community based youth services.  These services are instrumental in reducing incarcerations to juvenile facilities.

Some lawmakers have also indicated that they will use time during the session to begin the complex discussion of reforming the Arkansas tax code.  AACF welcomes this discussion and hopes to see a positive, solutions-oriented back-and-forth between lawmakers and economic experts.  As always we are eager to work with all interested parties to find ways to increase our investments in education and health care without increasing the burden on working families.  While we do not expect any binding legislation to emerge during the fiscal session, these are important discussions that will shape proposed legislation in coming years.

Please be sure to follow AACF on Facebook and Twitter.  We will continue to update our advocates and supporters throughout the legislative session and beyond.  Be sure to check our AR Voices blog regularly for in depth updates on legislation during the 2012 fiscal session.