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Dems criticize GOP plan to cut from Ark. agencies

A Republican plan to cut $21 million from state spending faced criticism Thursday from Democrats who accused GOP lawmakers of politicizing the budget process and proposing potentially devastating cuts for some Arkansas agencies.
LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - A Republican plan to cut $21 million from state spending faced criticism Thursday from Democrats who accused GOP lawmakers of politicizing the budget process and proposing potentially devastating cuts for some Arkansas agencies.

Efforts to move forward with Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe's $4.7 billion budget proposal remained at a standstill as he reviewed the proposed cuts from Republican legislators. Arkansas' Legislature is Democrat-controlled, but Republicans hold enough votes to block his spending plan from being considered.

A top Democrat in the state House said she was disappointed with the GOP push for its own budget plan.

"I'm very disappointed that they have chosen to inject partisan Washington politics into the process," Rep. Kathy Webb, who chairs the Joint Budget Committee, told reporters after the House delayed a vote on the budget resolution for a second day. "There has always been a collaborative process where Democrats and Republicans in Joint Budget came together and provided input into the Revenue Stabilization law. I'm confused because I can't figure out why they want to do it this way."

Arkansas' budget is made up of two parts: the Revenue Stabilization bill that sets spending priorities based on expected revenues and hundreds of separate appropriations bills that detail where the money actually comes from and authorize the state to spend that money. The Revenue Stabilization bill is the funding mechanism for the state's budget.

House Minority Leader John Burris and other Republicans on Wednesday detailed the cuts they would like to see in Beebe's budget. The GOP plan calls for a 3 percent spending cut for 11 state agencies. It wouldn't change a $56 million increase in spending for public schools that Beebe has proposed, but it would change the way an increase in Medicaid would be funded.

Webb said some of the cuts could be devastating, especially for smaller agencies.

Burris, R-Harrison, said he's using the proposed cuts as a starting point for negotiation on the budget.

“What I don't want to happen is to get to the end and have to vote yes or no on what was proposed when I know we have problems with what was proposed," Burris said. "I think it's responsible to start a debate and have a debate that tries to actually change where we end up."

Beebe said he's asked agency directors to tell him by early next week where they would have to cut to make the reductions called for in the Republican plan. Beebe said he was concerned that the proposal doesn't detail where the reductions would occur.

Beebe said he shares Webb's concerns that the separate proposal injects partisan politics into the process.

"I've discouraged Democrats from coming up with a Democrat Revenue Stabilization Act and try to work within the process and not make it Republicans versus Democrats," Beebe said. "Arkansans do not want Washington, D.C., to come to Little Rock, I promise you."

Beebe said a major concern he had was the proposal to use $14 million from the state's surplus to pay for part of the $114 million Medicaid funding boost he's recommended. Beebe said using one-time money rather than ongoing tax revenue would only exacerbate a shortfall the program is expected to have in 2013.

"That's real problematic budgeting," Beebe said.

House Speaker Robert Moore, D-Arkansas City, said the GOP proposal is a productive step in the budget negotiations but also said he was worried that it didn't detail which programs to cut within agency budgets.

"I don't see where an arbitrary 3 percent is prudent budget management," Moore said.

The Legislature convened Monday for a session focused primarily on the state's budget. Because it's not an appropriations bill, the Revenue Stabilization act requires at least 67 votes in the House to be introduced. Neither the Joint Budget Committee's nor the Republican budget resolutions spell out how the spending would be prioritized and merely authorize the legislation to be introduced.

Agencies targeted by the GOP cuts said they were reviewing the potential impact. The Health Department said the reductions would likely mean personnel cuts, while the Department of Parks and Tourism's director said it could result in reductions in operating hours and days for some parks.

The Arkansas Economic Development Commission, which faces a $309,354 cut under the GOP plan, also warned about the consequences of the reductions.

"We will be talking to legislators over the next few days discussing which efforts to attract jobs to the state of Arkansas they would like to diminish," Commission Spokesman Scott Hardin said.

(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)
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