Proposed cap on spending growth fails in House


LITTLE ROCK — A proposed cap on the growth of state spending failed in the House on Tuesday.

House Bill 1041 fell two votes short in the House on a 49-47 vote when two Republicans broke ranks with the sponsor, who is the House Majority leader.

The bill by Rep. Bruce Westerman, R-Hot Springs, would provide that annual spending could not increase from one fiscal year to the next by more than the average rate of change of total personal disposable income in the state over the previous five years as reported by the U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis.

Gov. Mike Beebe has strongly opposed the measure, saying it would wreak havoc on the state’s current budgeting system, which has been recognized by states across the nation as a model.

The Revenue Stabilization Act, approved annually by the Legislature, sets annual spending priorities and prohibits the state from spending more than it takes in, as is required by the state constitution.

Speaking in support of his bill on the House floor, Westerman said the Revenue Stabilization Act works well, but “I believe we can make the budgeting process better.”

Westerman said that instead of limiting spending to the amount of available revenue, the state should have a spending cap that makes more sense and brings more discipline to the budgeting process.

“If Arkansans have more disposable income in their pockets to spend, then the state government will be allowed to grow and spend at the same rate. To me that seems like a reasonable request,” he said.

Rep. Reginald Murdock, D-Marianna, asked Westerman, “Would you not say that by definition of that policy you’re limiting the money to be spent on services or programs or whatever is needed by the people?”

Westerman said his bill would not require any cuts.

“It just limits the rate of growth, and it also makes it a more consistent and sustainable rate of growth,” he said.

Murdock said he believes that “we need to have that flexibility to address the needs of the people, and I don’t think that you’re giving us that flexibility. I think you’re putting us in a box by this policy.”

Rep. John Edwards, D-Little Rock, spoke against the bill.

“I think we’ve got a good system. … I think it’s a system we ought to keep,” Edwards said.

Two Republican members declined to vote for the bill. Rep. Karen Hopper, R-Mountain Home, voted “present” and Rep. Mary Slinkard, R-Gravette, did not vote.

Hopper declined to comment when asked to explain her vote. Slinkard did not immediately return a call Tuesday afternoon seeking comment.

Westerman said later he was not planning to bring the bill back for another vote.

“I think it had a fair day in court today,” he said. “It is what it is. We’ve got a lot of other issues to address during the session that I need to focus my efforts on.”

Also Tuesday, the House voted 86-4 to approve Senate Bill 307 by Sen. David Johnson, D-Little Rock, which seeks to address frequent shortfalls in the Administration of Justice Fund, which is used to pay the salaries of trial court assistants, among other things.

Presenting the bill in the House, Rep. John Vines, D-Hot Springs, said it would raise certain court fees and equalize fees between courts.

The bill goes to the governor.

In other legislative action:

• The House passed, 81-8, Senate Bill 101 by Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, which would create a uniform cable TV franchise agreement for municipalities. The bill goes to the governor.

• The House passed, 89-0, HB 1250 by Rep. David Whitaker, D-Fayetteville, which would expand the definition of battery in the second degree to include recklessly causing physical injury to another person while driving while intoxicated. The bill goes to the Senate.

• The Senate passed, 35-0, SB 426 by Rep. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, which would, among other things, require a ballot question or legislative question committee to report the total campaign expenditures of an agent hired to work on its behalf. The bill, which is part of the Ethics Commission’s legislative package, goes to the House.

• The Senate passed, 26-4, SB 387 by Sen. Missy Irvin, R-Mountain View, which would ban body art procedures where the skin is intentionally scarred or objects are inserted under the skin. The bill goes to the House.