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OPINION: Budget passes; Hickey elected Senate Pro Tem

by Maylon T. Rice Columnist | April 22, 2020 at 5:24 a.m.

It may take more than a week to assess all that happened last week down in Little Rock.

First, the Arkansas Legislature, meeting in the shortest fiscal session of record, passed a scaled back version of the state's biannual budget.

Then, the cutbacks caused the joint chambers to approve the Medicaid formula for "Arkansas Works," by a 90-0 vote in the House -- an unheard of positive measure never seen in such close votes for the two-thirds (75 votes) for passage. The measure also passed by a wide margin in the state Senate.

And finally, Benton County state Senator Bart Hester of Cave Springs, had his announced bid and boastful campaign for the senate's highest office -- that of President Pro Tempore -- turned down in a secret ballot of all 35 state Senators.

Hester, known for his out-spoken, always public and often unfair criticism of people and issues he personally disagrees with; had only the tepid support of the entire GOP caucus.

Only a move to a secret ballot and Hester's challenger, Texarkana state Senator Jimmy Hickey's non-participation in the senate GOP caucus, plus a coalition with the seven Democrats in the Upper Chamber, spelled doom for Hester.

The vote totals were not announced for the public. Both Hester and Hickey had designated vote counters to oversee the secret ballot. Hickey, sources have said, won decidedly.

The biggest news was that Arkansas has and will, by law, maintain a balanced budget into the next two years.

The budget, scaled back by both the Hutchinson administration and state lawmakers, may cause some concern down the fiscal road ahead for Arkansas, but the budget did get balanced.

Speaking at his daily news conference on the covid-19 outbreak, Hutchinson praised the work of the general assembly. In part of his statement he praised the quick action. "So they (the legislature) have done their job and they did it in a way that was quick and allowed people to protect their health," the governor said.

All during the two week session, most, if not all the members wore cloth or protective masks, observed social distancing -- the 100 member House -- moved from the state capitol to a nearby convention center/basketball arena for their session. Many also opted to be connected from home with live streaming of debates, bill readings and votes.

Arkansas has a $5.89 billion dollar budget for the coming fiscal year -- the latest economic figures for the state from the state Department of Finance and Administration show $5.68 billion in fiscal 2021 which begins July 1.

There is a shortfall of $212.2 million in unfunded items -- which with the economic downtown and the pandemic can possibly still cause more budget cuts from the state's 13 various agencies, boards and commissions.

The state forecast had already been cut by $205.9 million a month ago when the impact of the covid-19 virus began in massive lay-offs and closures of many types of businesses in the state.

For comparison, the state's revenue budget in 2019 was $5.62 billion while the state's 2020 budget fell to $5.38 billion after the cuts in late March to bring the budget into balance.

Both the state House of Representatives and the state Senate voted identical bills -- known as the Revenue Stabilization Act -- for fiscal year 2021.

As one stop-gap measure approved in the fiscal session, the legislature approved the tapping of the Governor's Rainy Day Fund for $3.4 million for 18 public higher-education institutions that lost state funds in fiscal 2020 because of a new formula for retention of students. The covid-19 outbreak all but eliminated those funds as colleges and universities suspended in-person classes for most of the spring semester.

The state's budget may be balanced, but painful cuts and more cutbacks loom ahead as the state seeks to recover from the pandemic.

Stay safe, wash your hands and stay home.

-- Maylon Rice is a former journalist who worked for several northwest Arkansas publications. He can be reached via email at [email protected] The opinions expressed are those of the author.

Editorial on 04/22/2020

Print Headline: Budget passes; Hickey elected Senate Pro Tem


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