Going into the session, the only anticipated spice was a handful of nonbudget bills. However, Republicans have introduced a twist that has fueled quite a buzz over the actual budget process.

The second fiscal session took an unexpected turn in the opening week, making the often-boring budgeting process considerably more interesting.

Going into the session, the only anticipated spice was a handful of nonbudget bills. However, Republicans have introduced a twist that has fueled quite a buzz over the actual budget process.

Before the what comes the why and the how. The budget process is changing primarily for two reasons — a growing minority party and the effect of term limits.

Arkansas operates with a balanced budget, for the most part, due to a brilliantly simple system that Gov. Ben Laney set up in 1945 as a long-term fix to prevent the state from plunging back into a period of crushing debt. The Revenue Stabilization Act is the envy of nearly every other state in the country. It puts all appropriations into a single fund rather than tying them to a particular revenue stream, then prioritizes spending according to available revenue. The method prohibits the state from deficit spending and allows an orderly system for exercising cuts and storing or spending surpluses.

The law that creates spending priorities — the RSA — is perhaps the most influential part of the budget process. The bill creating the RSA for the next fiscal year has become the center of attention at the Capitol this year.

Traditionally, with the Legislature under Democratic control, a group of veteran lawmakers adept in the budget process would meet to write the RSA bill. The version submitted to the Joint Budget Committee in the waning days of the legislative session was essentially a done deal.

The term limits amendment approved by voters in 1992 has changed the dynamic. No longer is there a group of long-tenured lawmakers to draw up the RSA, but rather a new crop of citizen legislators who can serve only six years in the House and eight years in the Senate.

Although there are many positive aspects of term limits, one problem is the experience gap between the legislative branch and the executive branch — a gap that perhaps is highlighted no more vividly than in the budget process.

While legislators who had a couple of decades to learn the intricacies of state budgeting are gone, many state department and agency heads have that experience. In addition, the state’s chief executive, Gov. Mike Beebe, served under the dome for 20 years in the state Senate.

It is not hard to see how an experience gap that tilts decidedly toward the executive branch creates a system that favors a growing and strong bureaucracy.

That brings us to the current budget battle, where a suddenly robust Republican minority is pushing back against the margins to curb — however slightly — growth in state government. Operating outside the long-established process dominated by veteran Democrats, Republicans introduced their own RSA bill and presumed to cut $21 million from the Joint Budget Committee measure that largely mirrors Beebe’s $4.7 billion balanced budget proposal.

How the battle plays out is less the story than the fact that it is occurring at all. The changing political landscape is likely to produce a sometimes bumpy and messy state budget process. Hopefully, the wisdom of Laney’s Revenue Stabilization Act will endure as the budget process itself becomes more transparent.

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Jason Tolbert is an accountant and conservative political blogger. His blog — The Tolbert Report — is linked at ArkansasNews.com. His e-mail is jason@TolbertReport.com.