From the Arkansas Statehouse...

Date for annual sessions set, but more work to be done.

In Annual Sessions on 11 February 2009 at 4:50 pm

The Joint Budget Committee decided this morning to begin even-year fiscal sessions on the second Monday of February — 8 February in 2010, the first year the new sessions will take place. Pre-session budget hearings will begin in the first week of January. (Rep. Steve Harrelson provides a memo outlining the plan on his blog.)

Voters amended the state constitution to require annual meetings of the legislature last fall.

The dates for the new session are now sealed barring further action of the Budget Committee and do not need approval by the Senate or House, said Rep. Bruce Maloch, Budget Committee co-chair.

Under the fresh rules, the legislature will automatically review budgets of six state agencies: Education, Higher Ed, Health, Human Services, Correction and Community Correction. These agencies account for about 90 percent of the budget.

Other agencies will have to make a specific request in order to have their budgets reexamined. Otherwise they will receive the appropriations agreed to in odd years. An agency can be included in the budget process if it gets permission from the Legislative Council before its November meeting;  requests made later than November will require the approval of the Legislative Council, the Governor, and the Budget Committee itself.

There was some concern from committee members today that this structure will establish an unfair standard. “Are we circumventing having to look at each agency?” Sen. Percy Malone asked. “There is going to be someone out there who has a difficult time getting heard.”

In the end, though, the committee found it more expedient to require a hearing for only the largest state agencies.

Rep. Maloch said there is still work to be done in order to clarify the process on regular bills. The recent constitutional amendment prevents the legislature from hearing non-fiscal matters during fiscal sessions unless there is 2/3 approval in both bodies. Rep. Maloch said the House and Senate will have to form joint rules on how to handle regular bill proposals during even-year sessions. Staff is going through the code to clean up language that refers to biennial meetings.

(Read on for Rep. Maloch’s thoughts.)

Rep. Maloch said it would be presumptuous to go against the voters’ will and try to reinstate biennial sessions, as some legislators have proposed. He has entertained the idea of switching fiscal sessions to odd years, but he took no clear position on the matter in an interview today.

“My initial thoughts were that it would make sense to have the fiscal session first, so freshmen could observe the budget process for a year,” he said. But he added that conducting regular sessions during election years would be a drawback.

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