LITTLE ROCK — Legislative leaders Friday unveiled a budget bill that sticks close to Gov. Mike Beebe's spending proposals for the next fiscal year.
LITTLE ROCK — Legislative leaders Friday unveiled a budget bill that sticks close to Gov. Mike Beebe’s spending proposals for the next fiscal year.
The $4.7 billion budget bill was assigned to the Joint Budget Committee, which is expected to take it up on Monday.
The bill would keep most agencies’ funding flat but would increase state funding for Medicaid by $114 million and for public schools by $56 million.
The bill was introduced after nearly two weeks of wrangling over proposed budget cuts. House Minority Leader John Burris, R-Harrison, had proposed trimming $21 million from Beebe’s recommendations, but Beebe rejected most of the cuts, saying they would force dozens of layoffs and curtail essential services.
Ultimately Burris conceded that the cuts were not going to happen, and he urged House members to vote for a resolution allowing introduction of a budget bill during the fiscal session.
Matching House and Senate versions of the resolution passed this week, easily garnering the two-thirds votes they needed.
The budget bill does not include a Category B, the category normally reserved for spending that will only occur if funds are available after everything in Category A is funded.
“The administration felt like the forecast was solid enough to just have an A Category,” Sen. Gilbert Baker, co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, told reporters.
Baker, R-Conway, said he had proposed assigning some Medicaid spending to Category B to help address a projected shortfall, “but that didn’t make it into the bill.”
State Department of Human Services officials said this week that the state Medicaid shortfall is expected to reach between $350 million and $400 million in fiscal 2014, rather than the $200 million to $250 million previously projected.
Burris and other Republican lawmakers had proposed using money from the state’s surplus to boost Medicaid spending. Beebe opposed the idea, saying there was no need to take the action during the fiscal session because the money was not going anywhere.
“If that shortfall is truly there moving forward, it’s going to take every bit of money we can find to shore that up,” Baker said Friday.
“The governor felt like we could wait until the Legislature’s in session in January to specifically utilize that one-time money. There’s just a little difference of opinion there.”
Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, said Friday he plans to propose an amendment to the budget bill that would transfer $40 million from the state’s current surplus to the Medicaid Trust Fund and devote 75 percent of next year’s surplus, up to a cap of $60 million, into the fund.
“With the 3-1 (federal) match, that gets us close to the $400 million projected shortfall,” Dismang said. “I definitely think we need to take a look at what we’re doing and make sure we prepare ourselves for the storm that’s obviously on the horizon.”
Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said the governor believes any transfer of surplus funds to the Medicaid Trust Fund should wait until the regular session next January.
“We don’t know what other obligations the state may have, and we have to look at things like bond obligations that always get paid for out of surplus,” DeCample said.
Amy Webb, spokeswoman for the state Department of Human Services, said the projected shortfall was increased because of a combination of factors. She said the original forecast assumed an increase of $174 million, but Beebe instead has recommended a $114 million increase. Also, the federal matching rate has decreased.
“What we want people to understand is that the growth of the program and program expenditures, that has not changed,” she said.
Webb said the revised projection was presented to Beebe in February. DeCample said the governor did not tell legislators about the revision because “he’s not fully convinced yet that it’s going to be that high. It’s a moving target, and he’s not looking to sound the alarm any more than he has to.”