From the Arkansas Statehouse...

Committee discusses annual sessions, but decision delayed.

In Annual Sessions on 21 January 2009 at 4:26 pm

This morning the Joint Budget Committee took its first stab at implementing annual legislative sessions. Though the committee decided only to postpone a decision about the new schedule until February 11, members’ comments indicate that they want the new sessions to be rapid — perhaps so rapid that they become a mere rubber stamp of budgetary proceedings approved during regular sessions.

Legislators have proposed two distinct timelines for the new sessions, which would consider only fiscal matters: one in which it begins in February of even-numbered years, and another that makes January the start date. The sessions would be preceded by background work at the budget committee and the legislative council.  (The juicy bureaucratic details can be found in this memo.)

Under the current proposal, the new sessions will review the budgets of only six state agencies: the Departments of Education, Higher Education, Health, Human Services, Correction, and Community Correction. (These agencies account for approximately 90 percent of the budget.) All other agencies and commissions will retain their two-year funding unless a request is made for reconsideration.

What appears to be the real question before the committee is whether the new sessions will be a time of substantial activity, or whether they will simply approve work done during the odd-year sessions.

(Read on for more on today’s meeting and Gov. Beebe’s opinion on the issue.)

Speaking in favor of the bill, Rep. Rick Saunders, who supported the amendment for annual sessions that voters approved last November, said, “My intent was that legislative oversight be increased.”

But most other committee members remained skeptical. Sen. Gilbert Baker, chairman of the committee, stressed that he wanted to take a narrow approach to implementation so budget officers are not reviewing the budget all year, every year.

Rep. Donna Hutchinson pointed out that sessions would be a working period only for those legislators with assignments to budget committees. The amendment authorizing the sessions says they can only consider non-fiscal matters with a two-thirds vote of both houses, a high bar to overcome.

Others suggested that agencies present their biennial budgets as usual and that the fiscal sessions be used only to make adjustments.

Though it remains unclear whether that path would be constitutionally acceptable, legislators who prefer to restrict business during even years have Governor Beebe on their side. At a meeting of the Political Animals Club this afternoon, Beebe reiterated that he voted against the constitutional amendment and said he hopes that the legislature will limit the new sessions.


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