Arkansas Gov. Sanders urges lawmakers to pass budget as session kicks off


Photo: Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders gives the State of the State address, Wednesday, April 10, 2024, at the state Capitol in Little Rock, Ark. (Thomas Metthe/Arkansas Democrat-Gazette via AP)

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders on Wednesday urged lawmakers to pass her $6.3 billion budget proposal that boosts spending on a new school voucher program. But she stopped short of making new policy proposals as she delivered her first state of the state address.

The Republican governor addressed a joint gathering of the state House and Senate as lawmakers convened for an abbreviated legislative session focused on the state’s budget. Sanders, who served as former President Donald Trump’s press secretary, took office last year.

Sanders last month proposed a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that increases state spending by 1.76% over the previous year.

“If you send me a budget that funds critical services for Arkansans while slowing the growth of government, I will sign it,” Sanders said. “That’s because as revenues climb and costs slow, we’ll have room to cut taxes.”

Sanders has not proposed tax cuts during this session, and legislative leaders have said they don’t expect to look at any reductions until later this fiscal year. Sanders has signed two income tax cuts into law since taking office and has called for phasing out the income tax.

Nearly all of the $109 million spending increase in Sanders’ proposed budget would go toward education and is related to a law Sanders signed last year that created a new school voucher program.

Sanders touted the education law and other priorities from her first year as governor, including a measure that would have required parents’ OK for minors to open new social media accounts. That measure has been blocked by a federal judge.

Sanders said one of the state’s next priorities should be finding other ways to address the impact of social media on youth. She didn’t call on lawmakers to enact more restrictions, and legislative leaders said they didn’t expect the issue to be part of the session. But Sanders cited ideas such as phone-free schools and not allowing children on social media before they are 16.

“Big Tech might take us to court, but we’ll fight them,” Sanders said. “Because our children’s future depends on it.”

The session kicked off as lawmakers await the release of an audit on the $19,000 lectern that was purchased for Sanders. The purchase last year prompted national attention and scrutiny over its high cost, as well as questions about the handling of public records surrounding it.

The co-chairman of the legislative committee that ordered the audit on Tuesday said he expected it to be released to the public within the next 10 days.

Since the session is intended to focus on the budget, any non-fiscal bills will need a two-thirds vote to even be introduced.

Legislative leaders have said they expect a debate over efforts to scale back or repeal a law enacted last year that limited local governments’ ability to regulate cryptocurrency mines, which are data centers requiring large amounts of computing power and electricity. The law has prompted backlash from some communities who say it has prevented them from addressing the large amount of noise generated by the mines.

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said there wasn’t a need for Sanders to lay out more policy proposals given the limited agenda for the fiscal session. He noted that lawmakers had already held hearings on her budget plan.

“Most of it has been discussed,” Shepherd said. “Now I anticipate there are some details and things, as we move forward in terms of implementation, that there may be some things additionally put out there.”

Democrats have said, however, that they still hope to highlight concerns they have about the cost of the voucher program and their criticism that Sanders’ budget plan is leaving other needs underfunded.

“We’ve got some issues in Arkansas that we need to start addressing, and I don’t believe that budget prioritizes some things we need to be doing,” House Minority Leader Tippi McCullough said.

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