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House, Senate Approve $5 Billion Budget Bill

LITTLE ROCK — The House and Senate approved identical versions of the state budget bill Tuesday, clearing the way for both chambers to give each other’s bills final approval and wrap up the work of the fiscal session on Wednesday.

House Bill 1159 and the matching Senate Bill 147 sailed through their respective chambers. The votes were 90-8 in the House and 34-1 in the Senate.

The bill, officially known as the Revenue Stabilization Act, lays out the budget and sets spending priorities for the coming fiscal year. The bill proposes a $5.04 billion budget, a 2 percent increase from this fiscal year’s $4.94 billion budget.

The budget largely mirrors the proposed budget that Gov. Mike Beebe released in January, including a $65 million increase in public school funding. It also would boost prison funding by $3.1 million, increase reimbursement to county jails for housing state inmates by $7 million and use $5.2 million to give state employees a 1 percent cost-of-living adjustment.

The budget bill also would set aside $19 million for the state’s “rainy day fund,” or $9 million more than Beebe had requested.

Included in the state Department of Human Services’ budget is a $915 million appropriation of federal funding for the so-called private option, the state’s program to use federal Medicaid money to subsidize private insurance for low-income Arkansans.

Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, spoke in support of HB 1159. He noted that about $100 million in spending is not in the budget because of tax cuts that legislators approved last year.

“I hope that everybody here appreciates (the budget) because it’s balanced, it funds the needs, we sent some money back for the taxpayers, and I think by the end of the day we passed a very conservative budget that did right by the citizens and does right by the state government,” he said.

Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, spoke against HB 1159, saying he opposed it because it includes funding for the private option and does not boost funding for the state’s foster care system.

“I think it’s unsustainable,” Meeks said of the private option.

The House and Senate are to meet 9:30 a.m. Wednesday. In addition to approving each other’s matching budget bills, the chambers are expected to give final passage to nearly $22 million in supplemental appropriations from the state’s estimated $126 million budget surplus.

If all regular business is completed Wednesday, the Legislature is expected to recess until sine die, or the official end of the session, which likely would occur sometime next week.

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