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The Arkansas General Assembly gathers for the 2024 Fiscal Session from Apr. 10 to May 9.

2024 Arkansas fiscal session promises minimal government funding

Chris Hickey / KUAR News

The Arkansas Legislature’s fiscal session begins Wednesday, and Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders is asking lawmakers to increase the state's budget by only a small amount.

Little Rock Public Radio asked the governor if the increase, 1.78% over last year, would be enough to fund everything she wants. This includes raising minimum teacher salaries to $50,000 , $2 million for the University of Arkansas at Pine Bluff and just under $4 million for a new state trooper school.

Sanders said it would be enough.

“We have to stop the growth of the government while still being able to invest in the key priorities of this administration,” she said.

Arkansas’ budget averages a 3% increase each year. Experts say that means most state agencies can expect bare-bones funding, and not a lot of room for salary growth. But, the state probably won't take on any debt, and may have a surplus when the fiscal year is over.

Sanders asked for the increase in a letter she wrote to members of the legislature. When Rep. Aaron Pilkington, R-Knoxville, saw how small the budget was going to be, he said it was “shocking.”

“My initial impression was, 'Wow, that's a small increase,'” he said.

But, Pilkington says he started to warm up to the idea after the last few weeks of committee meetings.

“We had the preliminary budget hearings and we just kind of came through and explained what they were doing and what was going on,” he says. “It became way more in my mind, 'This makes sense. We can do it.'”

Sanders' goal of eliminating the state's income tax is part of the reason for the smaller-than-average increase in funding. The legislature approved new tax cuts last session, but the governor says that’s just a start.

“Government growth has to be slowed if we want to do things like phase out the state income tax,” she says.

More tax cuts may not be on the agenda for this session, but most Republicans are united in slashing it eventually. Pilkington wasn't sure if more cuts were coming now, but thinks the state is preparing itself for a good future.

“By not increasing our future spending, it helps us to be able to make those tax cuts without having to cut services.”

Pilkington says he wants Arkansas to compete with neighboring Texas and Tennessee, which don't have an income tax.

This fight between tax cuts and money for services brings up an age-old question of just how big the government should be. Arkansas Democrats generally want more state money for services, but they don't really have any leverage.

One of the state's few Democratic lawmakers is Sen. Clarke Tucker, who represents parts of central Arkansas. In a perfect world, he would give more money to public services.

“Investing in more K-12 education, making sure more people either have an opportunity to go to college or get a license for post secondary training,” he said.

Tucker says he also wants to expand mental health services and substance abuse treatment, saying the state dumps too much on its justice system.

But, so far, this hasn’t become a reality. Most Arkansas lawmakers are small-government conservatives in a state that runs deeply red.

Tucker didn't name names, but said state employees are worried their budgets will be too small for the coming years.

“State agency directors will tell me that they lose employees because the pay can't keep up,” he said. “We can't fill positions as parole officers, which we really need as a state. We can't fill corrections officers positions, which we are in desperate need of, because the numbers stay flat.”

This is an argument Pilkington, a Republican, understands.

“That's obviously an issue because when you think about a lot of these agencies' budgets, 60% to 80% is personnel. When you don't increase it as much as you have done in the past, it does put a tighter grip.”

One program the budget will be funding is Arkansas LEARNS, a law that gives public money to families to send their kids to private schools. Sen. Tucker was vocally against LEARNS when it was in the legislature. But departmental budgets are voted on as packages. LEARNS funding isn't taken out separately from the rest of the money for the Department of Education.

“I had an opportunity to oppose LEARNS. I lost that fight,” Tucker said. “And really, I just need to fund the education system that we have.”

Pilkington says he plans to vote in favor of most budget bills as well.

“I had a member come to me and say, ‘Hey, I want you to help me hold this budget because the DMV is doing a bad job getting driver's licenses out in time.’ I said 'Well, that sounds like your DMV's issue, not the whole entire state's [Department of Finance and Administration]'s budget I'm going to hold up for your one issue.’”

The fiscal session begins at noon Wednesday morning.

Copyright 2024 Little Rock Public Radio. To see more, visit Little Rock Public Radio.

Josie Lenora is a news anchor and reporter for KUAR News at Little Rock Public Radio. She has listened to KUAR and NPR since she was a young child growing up in Little Rock and says she is thrilled to give back to an organization she loves. Josie was previously an intern in the fall of 2021 assisting in production, then spent another semester with the station interning in the newsroom in the spring of 2022.