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Arkansas Legislature Nears Completion Of Budget Session As COVID-19 Forces Cuts

Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration Director of Budget Jake Bleed (left) and Education Secretary Johnny Key at the Joint Budget Committee meeting Wednesday.
Arkansas Citizens Access Network

Legislative leaders expect to wrap up the biennial fiscal session of the Arkansas General Assembly on Thursday. The House and Senate gave initial approval Wednesday to identical versions of the $5.8 billion Revenue Stabilization Act for the budget year that begins in July.

Lawmakers had been pressured to complete the session as quickly as possible given the threat of the COVID-19 outbreak. Fiscal sessions typically last at least a month, but Thursday will be the ninth day for this one.

"I appreciate everybody’s work getting this done in record time," Senate President pro Tempore Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) told his colleagues. "I know it took cooperation and perhaps some compromises that folks didn’t want to make, but I think we all saw the necessity to go home and get back before this thing peaks, so thank you very much for that."

Many legislators have been wearing masks during the session. Three lawmakers have tested positive for COVID-19 since a special session was held last month to approve moving rainy day funds to cover budget shortfalls.

Jake Bleed, director of budget for the Department of Finance and Administration, told the Joint Budget Committee in the morning that since the governor presented his proposed budget on March 4, the department has continually been making cuts to adjust to "an economy that no longer exists."

"Since that time, we’ve seen economic activity in the state really change dramatically. We had to, for the current fiscal year, institute a $353 million budget cut that is compressed into last three months of the fiscal year."

Part of the debate in the committee involved community colleges who have fallen short of meeting expectations, but will equally get federal dollars with other colleges who have done better.

Last week the committee rejected a proposal by Sen. Trent Garner (R-El Dorado) to shut down an office in China funded by the Arkansas Economic Development Commission. He again brought that up as the full Senate voted Wednesday on funding for the Department of Commerce, which includes the commission.

"I think when we look back at the Wuhan COVID-19 crisis in Arkansas and see that the Arkansas Senate did nothing to hold China accountable during this time, it’ll be a black stain on the history of this crisis," Garner said. 

Legislative leaders expect quick approval of the identical budget bills when the two chambers reconvene Thursday. The Senate is scheduled to meet beginning at 9:30 a.m., with the House to meet at 10 a.m.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson told reporters during his press briefing Wednesday that he looks forward to going through the final budget that gets passed.

The Arkansas House of Representatives is meeting at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's basketball arena to allow adequate spacing between legislators.
Credit AR-CAN
The Arkansas House of Representatives is meeting at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock's basketball arena to allow adequate spacing between legislators.

Like the special session held last month, the House is meeting at the Jack Stephens Center at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock to allow space for representatives and their staff. Senators are spread out in their chamber at the state Capitol.

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