Arkansas Democrat Gazette
The state House of Representatives voted Monday to hold salaries and funding flat for people elected to the legislative, judicial and executive branches of state government in fiscal 2012.
House Bill 1063 provides money for elected officials – judges, constitutional officers, legislators, prosecutors – but not their staffs nor the rest of state government such as the agencies that provide human services, health programs, prisons, state police or higher education.
The state constitution (Article 5, Section 30) requires that the bill, known as the General Appropriation Bill, be the first appropriation enacted for fiscal 2012. It now goes to the Senate for consideration.
House Bill 1063 initially included a 1.86 percent cost of-living increase for prosecutors and judges that the Legislature’s Budget Committee stripped from the bill last week after some legislators questioned whether it is appropriate to provide raises to elected officials in a tight economy.
The action removed about $475,000 from the bill, which appropriates more than $35 million in total.
Gov. Mike Beebe has proposed a 1.86 percent raise for nonelected state employees. He cited good revenue collections. The committee will consider those raises later in the session.
Budget Co-Chairman Rep. Kathy Webb, D-Little Rock, said she doesn’t know what the rejection of salary increases for judges and prosecutors may mean for raises the governor wants for other state employees.
“I’ve got some members who have told me they’re not going to support any [cost of-living increases], regardless of what the pay level is, and I’ve got some members who’ve said they would support [cost-of-living increases] for the lower paid employees but not the higher paid,” Webb said. “Based on this first bill, I’m sure it will be a robust discussion, and that’s a good thing.”
State Budget Administrator Mike Stormes estimated 31,600 of the state’s more than 56,000 employees would receive the 1.86 percent cost-of living raise if it is approved by lawmakers.
At least a dozen proposed tax cuts have been filed this session, a move Beebe has said the state cannot afford in the current economy.
Beebe proposed his own decrease, a 0.5 percentage point drop in the sales-tax rate on groceries. He has told lawmakers they have to find money in the budget to offset any new programs or further tax cuts.
Webb said some legislators may consider finding that money by not providing cost-of-living increases to state employees, a move she called dangerous.
“I would caution folks about choosing to use this as ‘found money’ because we don’t have [cost-of-living increases] in there every single year,” Webb said.
The Senate co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee said he doesn’t expect an attempt in the Senate to amend the bill to insert the raises for prosecutors and judges.
“There are some discussions and thoughts about what we should do and not do, but I don’t really see that,” said Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway.
Sen. Mary Anne Salmon, D-North Little Rock, said she didn’t expect an attempt to resurrect the raises for judges and prosecutors, either.
“It’s not good politics,” she said. “The public would have an uprising.”
On another matter, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, filed Senate Bill 129 to provide for the Senate to install audiovisual equipment to broadcast committee meetings.
The House spent $377,416 in 2010 to equip four of its rooms with broadcast gear.
The House also allows its sessions to be telecast live from within the chamber. The Senate doesn’t.
“I respect the Senate’s traditions, and I value those traditions, but the voters are the ones paying the bills and they elected us, and they should have a chance to see what’s going on,” Hutchinson said.
In other business, Monday’s deadline for introducing state retirement bills has been extended in both chambers until Friday.
Under state law, any legislation affecting a public retirement system in a regular session is required to be introduced during the first 15 calendar days of a regular session but an extension is allowed if the Legislature recesses more than three consecutive days during the first 15.
The Senate chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Retirement and Social Security Programs, Sen. Johnny Key, R-Mountain Home, noted that the Legislature recessed for four days over a recent weekend.
A bill to thwart part of the federal health-care law is scheduled to be heard today at 10 a.m. in the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee in Room 130 in the state Capitol. It is aimed at blocking the federal provision that mandates that people buy private health insurance.
House Bill 1053 by Rep. David Meeks, R-Conway, states “A law or rule shall not compel, directly or indirectly, an individual, an employer, or a health care provider to participate in any health care system” such as the federal Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010.
Although federal law overrides state law, lawmakers in 40 states proposed more than 115 bills or resolutions to limit or restrict the federal healthcare law in 2010, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Five states amended state laws to oppose the federal health-care law in 2010.
Legislators in 29 states failed to pass or rejected proposed legislation or resolutions against the health-care law.
“We need to show that we are united as individual states against this thing so we’re joining with our fellow states to show that Arkansas is with them in pushing against this thing that the federal government is trying to do to the people,” Meeks said.
Article 6 of the U.S. Constitution contains what is known as the Supremacy Clause, and it states that federal law “shall be the supreme law of the land; and the judges in every state shall be bound thereby, anything in the constitution or laws of any state to the contrary notwithstanding.”
Also, Senate President Pro Tempore Paul Bookout, D-Jonesboro, said Monday that he has appointed Key as co-chairman of the Legislature’s 12-member lottery oversight committee. Key has been a critic of the lottery at times.
Bookout also reappointed Sen. David Johnson, D-Little Rock, and Sens. Robert Thompson, D-Paragould, and Salmon and added Sens. David Wyatt, D-Batesville, and Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, to the committee.
House Speaker Robert S. Moore Jr. said he appointed state Rep. Mark Perry, D-Jacksonville, as the committee’s co-chairman and reappointed Rep. Barry Hyde, D-North Little Rock, and Rep. Darrin Williams, D-Little Rock. He also appointed state Reps. Mary Lou Slinkard, R-Gravette; Bobby Pierce, D-Sheridan; and Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado.