Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson released the framework for his proposed 2015-2016 budget yesterday. The Governor's outline is a good first step toward a responsible budget that meets our constitutional obligations while providing the basic health and human services that Arkansans rely on. Budget cuts, made necessary by the Governor’s campaign promise of $90 million in tax cuts, are distributed fairly evenly across state government. The Governor is to be commended for that. But it also leaves key priorities, like pre-K, unfunded and it leaves unanswered questions that must be addressed before the budget can be judged fairly.
We are concerned that the Governor’s budget leaves several key needs unmet
- Pre-K education -- Pre-K funding in Arkansas has not seen a cost of living increase since 2008. Again this year, the single most powerful tool for boosting educational attainment and closing the achievement gap was forgotten. The Governor says that pre-k is a priority for him and that he will seek more revenue to pay for it. We will be happy partners in that effort,but generally a governor lays his priorities out in his budget. Governor Hutchinson left increased pre-k funding out of his.
- Prison reform -- The Governor did not address how he would meet rising demand for more prison space. He left our parole and reentry system woefully unfunded and overstretched. Arkansas can serve our communities better by investing more in diversion, reentry and parole systems. These actions are proven to lower crime and save taxpayers money.
- Afterschool and Summer Programs -- Again, a powerful tool for boosting academic performance was left unfunded. Afterschool and Summer programs are proven to improve the education of children, especially low income children who may otherwise fall behind in school. We need to give our kids the opportunity to succeed.
We are also troubled by several unanswered questions in the Governor's budget:
- How will state agencies absorb the cuts in their budget? Vital agencies like the Health Department, Career Education, the Department of Environmental Quality and the Agriculture Department all have cuts in the Governor's budget. Will essential services like flu clinics, job retraining programs, water quality testing or the Arkansas Grown programs be curtailed? We need to hear how these agencies will absorb these cuts, and whether essential duties will be limited before we can judge the proposed cuts accurately.
- Where will the tax cutting end? The Governor's proposed tax cut initially took the common sense approach of delaying or repealing other tax cuts that benefit upper income Arkansans to help pay for the plan. That lasted a little more than a week before lawmakers successfully added $10 million in Capital Gains Tax Cuts. This change overwhelmingly benefits super wealthy stock and bond traders. We believe the legislature should create a budget and then implement a tax plan to meet that budget, like most Arkansans do around their kitchen tables. The legislature is doing it backwards, passing tax cuts before debating which programs and services might be cut to pay for the tax cuts. For example, the $10 million in Capital Gains Tax Cuts for the super wealthy is almost equal to what the state needs to increase pre-k funding. It is difficult to judge a proposed tax cut when you do not know what program or service will be left unfunded to pay for it.
The Governor, through his budget, has the opportunity to show support for pre-school and high-quality, safe afterschool and Summer programs for all Arkansas children. He also has a platform to support re-entry programs that make sense for state budgets and for communities. We think the Governor should consider increasing funding for these areas.