Hutchinson unveils $6B budget proposal

(The Center Square) – Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson proposed a $6 billion budget to the Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday; 3.3% higher than last year's spending plan.

“This is higher than I prefer, but the needs of our state and our health financial position support this increase," Hutchinson said.

Hutchinson said $1.2 billion in the catastrophic reserve fund would provide an additional cushion against economic uncertainties.

Larry Walther with the Department of Finance and Administration said his office included inflation in its factors with the expectation of it continuing for two years.

The governor is proposing a nearly $10,000 increase in starting salary for entry level troopers with the Arkansas State Police. Hutchinson proposed spending an additional $7.6 million on the Department of Public Safety to fund the starting salary increase.

“The reason this is critical is that our recruitment numbers are down, and we are currently low in our region for state police salaries,” Hutchinson said. “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 and livable salaries for those that are in law enforcement.”

Budget Director Robert Breck said the plan would raise new troopers’ salaries from around $41,000 to $52,000 and also would make adjustments for those who have been in service longer by adding a multiplier for the number of years in service. This plan, Breck said, is not finalized and would not go all the way to the top of the ranks.

“They have seen a sharp decrease in the amount of applicants for trooper school, and so I think that’s why they wanted to raise this,” Breck said.

Hutchinson also discussed health insurance for public school employees, saying $57 million in existing funds and $50 million in restricted reserve funds are for this purpose.

“I know that we’re all concerned about the public school employee health insurance fund,” Hutchinson said. “As you consider the budget this year, I believe there is sufficient allocation of funds to make sure the health insurance plan for our public school employees is protected.”

Hutchinson’s proposal would increase spending on education, including a $69.6 million increase for public school funding, $28.5 million increase for education facilities and a $500,000 increase for adult education. It also would allocate $5.3 million to Arkansas Tech University, Southern Arkansas University and the University of Arkansas at Fort Smith.

“These institutions have been historically underfunded and this is to remedy historic disparity and to bring it all to correction this year,” Hutchinson said.

New to the budget is a proposed $841,000 for the University of Arkansas at Monticello's College of Forestry, which Hutchinson said would help boost the timber industry.

The governor said his proposed budget reflects his priority for children and families. Some of the provisions would include $37.6 million for reducing the waitlist for those with disabilities awaiting services and funds for child abduction response teams.

Other proposals would address the creation of two new drug courts in northeastern Arkansas and expand veteran services.

Arkansas lawmakers started budget hearings Tuesday. The full Legislature returns for the 2022 session Feb. 14.

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