LITTLE ROCK — The first week of the Legislature's fiscal session was marked by wrangling over not just the budget but the budget process itself, with Democrats and Republicans at odds over whether to follow traditional procedures or take a new approach.
LITTLE ROCK — The first week of the Legislature’s fiscal session was marked by wrangling over not just the budget but the budget process itself, with Democrats and Republicans at odds over whether to follow traditional procedures or take a new approach.
Former GOP legislators say they aren’t surprised that sitting Republican lawmakers would want to break with tradition in today’s altered political landscape.
At issue is the process by which the Revenue Stabilization Act will be amended to set the budget and spending priorities for the new fiscal year that begins July 1.
Rep. Kathy Webb, D-Little Rock, co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, has filed a resolution to allow the RSA to be amended during the fiscal session, but House Minority Leader John Burris, R-Harrison, and Sen. Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, have filed similar resolutions in their respective chambers, saying they have their own spending ideas.
Burris unveiled a proposal Wednesday for trimming $21 million from Gov. Mike Beebe’s $4.7 billion proposed budget. Webb said she was “very disappointed.”
“I’m just not sure why they would choose to introduce that much partisanship into it, because we’ve always worked together on the Joint Budget RSA,” Webb said.
Beebe also expressed reservations, saying the move by Republicans “causes some concern because Republicans have as much right to weigh in on changing that bill as Democrats, and they always have.”
Beebe served as a state senator for 20 years before being elected attorney general in 2002 and then governor in 2006, followed by his re-election four years later.
Bill Walters of Greenwood, who served as a Republican state senator from 1983 to 2001, said that although budget hearings were open, he remembers the process of setting spending priorities — determining how much money state agencies will actually receive — as something that happened behind closed doors.
“Historically, that’s just been some kind of a secret. You don’t even know who’s on the group that does it,” said Walters, who in his final years in the senate was one of six Republicans in the 35-member body.
Walters said the RSA was presented to the Legislature in the final days of each session as a fait accompli, and voting on it was “up or down,” with little or no discussion.
“It was just something that happened. No one seemed to know who and what and why — at least those of us on the Republican side didn’t know what was going on,” he said.
Keven Anderson of Rogers, who served as a Republican House member from 2003 to 2009, said GOP involvement in the process has increased as Republicans have gained more seats.
“Have Republicans been an integral part of the decision-making process on revenue stabilization to this point? No. Have we been more included in the process in the last six to eight years? Yes,” he said.
In Anderson’s final term, Republicans then held 28 of the 100 House seats and eight Senate seats.
He said the meetings where spending priorities are determined are the ones where “the rubber meets the road,” and those are not open to most lawmakers. “You’re not going to get that in a budget meeting. That’s what happens at the governor’s mansion” between the governor and select legislative leaders, he said, adding that as chairman of the House Revenue and Taxation Committee he was allowed at least to observe some of those meetings.
Anderson acknowledged that some things have to be worked out by small groups, because having 135 legislators meet to argue over spending priorities would not be practical. But he said it always bothered him that the RSA was unveiled at the very end of the session.
“It would be healthier to the process if the Legislature was given at least two weeks to look at that thing,” he said.
Republicans now hold 45 House seats and 15 Senate seats — still a minority, but enough to block an RSA measure from getting the two-thirds vote it needs to be considered during a fiscal session.
Anderson said Burris’ proposal is nothing radical — it takes Beebe’s proposal as a starting point and would cut less than 1 percent from it — but it sends a message.
“I kind of read it as saying, ‘Hey, we deserve a seat at the table. You need to start including more of us in the discussion,’” he said.
David Bisbee of Rogers, who served as a Republican House member from 1993 to 1999 and as a Republican senator from 1999 to 2009, said that when he was in the Legislature it made sense to wait to set spending priorities until all other bills had been passed.
“How can you do revenue stabilization before you know what revenue bills are passed?” he said.
But the current session is a fiscal session, devoted only to the budget unless legislators can muster a two-thirds vote to raise other matters.
Bisbee said it is impossible to compare his time in the Legislature to today, thanks both to fiscal sessions — voters approved them in 2008 and the first one was held in 2010 — and the increased parity between parties, which he said inevitably has led to more partisanship.
Bisbee said he was not saying that the situation is worse now, just that it is different. He dismissed the idea that legislators should observe tradition and do things the way they always have.
“What’s fair is whatever you’ve got enough votes to do,” he said.