Republicans are flexing their newfound muscle in the Arkansas Legislature quickly by stalling a proposed pay raise for the state's prosecutors and judges in a bill that heads back to a budget committee this week.

 

Republicans are flexing their newfound muscle in the Arkansas Legislature quickly by stalling a proposed pay raise for the state's prosecutors and judges in a bill that heads back to a budget committee this week.
Concerns about the 1.86 percent pay raises included in the proposed General Appropriation Act sent the measure back to the Joint Budget Committee, which is expected to consider removing the pay hikes this week. The money saved by cutting the raises — $475,000 — is a miniscule part of the state's $4.6 billion budget and amounts to a little over 1 percent of the legislation that appropriates money for the executive, legislative and judicial branches.
But the move by House members to send the bill back to committee offers a preview of the spending fights still to come in a more closely divided Legislature.
"I think there's going to be a real focus on holding the line on spending in this session," said Sen. Gilbert Baker, R-Conway, the co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee. Baker says the raises will likely be removed when the bill heads back to his committee on Wednesday.
Republicans are still a minority party in the Legislature, but they enjoyed their biggest gains in both the House and the Senate in the November election. Republicans hold 44 of the 100 seats in the House and 15 of the 35 seats in the state Senate.
The legislation was sent back to the budget panel after several lawmakers said they were concerned about the pay raises, which included hikes for judges of the state Supreme Court and Appeals Court. Legislators and constitutional officers were not given a pay raise in the bill, which is the first appropriation act that must be approved during the session.
"The main question being raised is, people in the private sector aren't getting raises, so why this group? What is the message we're sending voters?" said Rep. Ed Garner, R-Maumelle, one of the lawmakers who had raised concerns about the raises.
How far lawmakers are willing to go with a harder line against spending remains to be seen. Gov. Mike Beebe has proposed a budget that keeps most agency spending relatively flat, and he's said there's no room in the budget for any tax relief beyond the half-cent grocery tax cut he's proposed.
But there are some spending increases proposed, including a 1.86 percent cost-of-living increase for state employees that will cost about $23 million. Though no lawmakers are publicly calling for cutting that raise or other spending increases, legislative leaders acknowledged that spending may get more scrutiny by the Legislature this session.
Legislative leaders say they expect the work of the session to gear up when they return on Tuesday after a short first week marked mostly by ceremony.
"Next week, the ball game really begins," House Speaker Robert Moore, D-Arkansas City, said last week. "The committees are active now. You've got a lot of bills that have been filed. I don't have the crystal ball to tell you what's going to be the first big issue that I see."
But he says next week doesn't likely hold bills surrounding the issues at the top of his agenda like prison reform or finding funding for highways.
"The big-ticket items that I hope to be the focus of the agenda are just not out there yet," Moore said.
The Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee will begin discussions about congressional redistricting on Tuesday with officials from the secretary of state's office and the Bureau of Legislative Research.
Also this week, four House committees are expected to vote on whether to stream their meetings on the web in real time. Some lawmakers say they oppose airing the committee proceedings online because not all committees meet in rooms with cameras.

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Associated Press Writer Jeannie Nuss contributed to this report.