Arkansas lawmakers approved a proposed $6.2 billion budget and an overhaul of the state's sentencing laws on Friday as they wrapped up an 89-day legislative session that's been marked by approval of Republican Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders' school voucher program and a push for new restrictions on transgender people.
The House and Senate approved identical versions of the legislation laying out the budget plan, which calls for increasing state spending by more than $177 million in the fiscal year that begins July 1. The biggest increases are directed toward public schools and the corrections system.
"We have prioritized the things we should prioritize: public safety, education of our children," Senate President Bart Hester, a Republican, told reporters after the vote. "And we believe we're going to continue to have significant surpluses in Arkansas."
But the only lawmaker who voted against the legislation, Republican Sen. Bryan King, said he thinks the state's budget has been growing too quickly and lawmakers should find cuts to offset the spending increases.
"Every time we talk about Washington D.C. or Joe Biden or somebody expanding the debt, we have to first look at ourselves," King said.
Legislative leaders say they believe the state has some cushion against changes in the economy, noting that Arkansas has more than $1.3 billion in a catastrophic reserve fund. The budget plan also forecasts the state will build up a $391 million surplus in the coming fiscal year.
"We've positioned ourselves that if there is a downturn, the state will be able to manage it and continue to provide the type of services the public expects," House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, a Republican, told reporters.
The Senate also gave final approval to a change in the state's sentencing laws that will end parole eligibility for certain violent offenses. Sanders and Attorney General Tim Griffin advocated for the proposal. It would require anyone sentenced beginning in 2024 for any of 18 violent offenses — including capital murder, first-degree murder and rape — to serve 100% of their sentence.
Starting in 2025, the bill would also require prisoners to serve at least 85% of a sentence for a list of other offenses, such as second-degree murder. Offenders convicted of other crimes would be required to serve 25% or 50% of their sentences, but the table spelling out which crimes fall under those minimums will be developed later. The changes won’t apply to people who had already been sentenced before the law takes effect.
The Legislature this week approved a separate bill tapping into the state's surplus for several needs, including $330 million for new prison space and $300 million for a new crime lab building.
Lawmakers plan to reconvene by May 1 to formally adjourn this year's session and consider any veto overrides. Since taking office in January, Sanders hasn't yet vetoed any bills that reached her desk, her office said.
Sanders' top agenda items were approved during the legislative session. Those include a massive education law that will create a school voucher program and raise minimum teacher salaries. Lawmakers this week approved another key part of Sanders' agenda, a cut in income taxes that will cost the state $124 million a year.
Lawmakers since January have pushed for several bills targeting the rights of transgender people, including a law Sanders signed that's aimed at reinstating Arkansas' blocked ban on gender affirming care for minors. The law, which will take effect later this summer, will make it easier to sue providers of such care for minors. The governor has also signed a law that will prohibit transgender people at public schools from using restrooms that align with their gender identity.
The top Democrat in the Senate called the series of bills "horrifying."
"I think it also sends the message to anyone outside of Arkansas that the state is not welcoming and inclusive," Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding said.
There are several major bills awaiting action from Sanders. They include a measure she has supported that would require age verification to use social media sites and parental approval for users under 18, which would make Arkansas the second state to enact such a restriction.