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These are stories related to Arkansas' Fiscal Session for 2022.

Arkansas governor outlines proposed $6 billion state budget

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Arkansas Legislature
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KUAR
Gov. Asa Hutchinson presented his proposed budget to members of the Joint Budget Committee of the Arkansas Legislature on Tuesday.

Arkansas’ Republican governor has proposed a new state budget that includes funding for higher education, workforce development and services for people with disabilities.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson introduced his roughly $6 billion budget for fiscal year 2023 to lawmakers in a meeting of the Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday. He said the proposal reflects an increase of 3.3% over the previous year’s spending.

“This is higher than I prefer, but the needs of our state and our healthy financial position support this increase. The budget also allows for $175 million of built-in surplus, which gives us a cushion that is needed in this time of economic fluctuations,” Hutchinson said.

The budget surplus would add to the $1.2 billion already in the state’s catastrophic reserve fund. The proposal includes funding for raises for state troopers, higher education and infrastructure projects throughout Arkansas.

Hutchinson said one of the largest allocations in the budget is $57 million to help avoid rate increases in the public school employees’ health insurance system.

“There’s also $50 million remaining in the restricted reserve fund for this purpose. And so as you consider the budget this year, I believe there’s sufficient allocation of funds to make sure that the health insurance plan for our public school employees is protected,” Hutchinson said.

That would go alongside an increase of nearly $70 million in public school funding and $28.5 million more for educational facilities. Hutchinson said he also hopes to allocate about $38 million to help reduce wait times for disabled Arkansans seeking services from the state.

Among other priorities included in the proposal is a pay increase for entry-level state troopers, which Hutchinson said is necessary to ensure appropriate staffing levels.

“Our recruitment numbers are down, and we are currently low in our region for state police salaries. This will elevate our starting salaries to second in the region of southern states, and it will set an example for local law enforcement and remind them of their responsibilities to make sure they have competitive salaries,” Hutchinson said.

The pay raises would amount to a starting salary of about $52,000 for new state troopers, with more senior officials also qualifying for a pay bump. But Rep. Jim Wooten, R-Beebe, argued new police officers should be paid even more.

“We need to compensate them for that money and we’ve got to watch the top part relative to what we’re paying the lower part because they’re the ones that are out there putting their life on the line every day,” Wooten said. “And $52,000 a year, is your life worth $52,000 a year?”

The budget also reflects a nearly $70 million increase in funding for public schools, as well as $5.3 million for the “historically underfunded” higher education institutions of Arkansas Tech University, Southern Arkansas University and the University of Arkansas—Fort Smith.

The governor’s proposal will be reviewed by lawmakers ahead of a fiscal session of the legislature beginning on Feb. 14.