Arkansas’ Fake Balanced Budget

Fake balanced budgetRecently Conduit for Action called for the live streaming on the internet of meetings of the powerful Joint Budget Committee and its subcommittees.
[Read Here]
The following article not only focuses Arkansas’ fake balanced budget, it also gives you an example why videoing these meetings is so important.


Arkansas has a balanced budget.  Right?  It does if you don’t count the fact that Arkansas has not been paying all its bills.  

Arkansas has let some state debts continue to snowball while optional programs receive full funding.

  • The debt snowball for reimbursement of counties for housing state inmates became so bad in 2014 that the state had to suspend reimbursements to counties after only two months of the fiscal year.
  • The state keeps playing catch-up on holiday pay and overtime payments to prison employees.

Before discussing “shell game budgeting”, you may need some basic understanding of budget lingo:

  • Appropriation [bill]: This is the authorization by the legislature to spend money.  It does not actually direct or prioritize the spending of the money.  The actual distribution of state general revenue is controlled by a formula in Arkansas’ Revenue Stabilization Act which uses priority categories.
  • Category “A”: This is the highest funding category under the Revenue Stabilization Act.  Items in this category are funded first.  Then if funds remain, other categories are funded, at least in part.
  • Category “B”: Items in Category “B” of the Revenue Stabilization Act are funded only after Category “A” are fully funded.
  • County Jail Reimbursement: Counties house state inmates in county jails while waiting to be transferred into a state correctional facility.  As the state inmate population has increased, more inmates are housed in county jails for longer periods of time awaiting transfer.  The state promises to reimburse counties a designated amount for each housed inmates. 
  • Fiscal Year: Arkansas’ budget is based on a year that runs from July 1 through June 30 of the following year.  We are currently in budget FY 2014–2015 (passed during the 2014 Fiscal Session.)
  • Revenue Stabilization Act: This is a mechanism to prioritize available state funds for various state agencies and state obligations.  Higher categories are funded first. If there is a shortfall, a category may receive only a percentage of the total amount allotted to that category.  Many politicians are in reality referencing this Act during their campaigns when they claim, “I passed a balanced budget.”

What went wrong with county jail reimbursement?

In the 2013 Regular Session $9.4 million was allocated in the upcoming budget to pay county jail reimbursement.  By the 2014 Fiscal Session (January ‘14) leaders knew that this was not enough money for the remainder of the FY 2013-14 (ending June ‘14.)  So $4.2 million was added from the state surplus ($500,000 to the Department of Community Correction + $3.7 million to the Department of Corrections).  Although $7.4 million had been requested just for the Department of Correction, this request was cut in half.[i]  Was this an intentional move to shift another $3.7 million or a part of that amount of the state’s debt into the 2014-15 Fiscal Year by the 89th General Assembly?

Despite these same legislators knowing that $9.4 million had not been anywhere near enough to pay the state’s debt to counties in the 2013-14 fiscal year, no additional funds were put in Category “A” for the 2014-15 fiscal year.  To the uninformed observer it looked like the state was addressing the problem because an additional $7 million was added to Category “B” funding.  Was this just a head fake, knowing that Category “B” would not be funded?

Perhaps there was a sudden economic downturn in 2014 that caused County Jail Reimbursement not to receive Category “B’ funding?  No. Category “B” funding was just a pipe dream. When the Corrections Board announced in September 2014 that that there would be few if any reimbursement payments for the next ten months, state revenue had been near, or perhaps a little above, the state forecast.  July revenues were reported to be lower than forecast by the state, but the shortfall was only 1.9%.  Richard Weiss, the Director of the Department of Finance and Administration, declared the drop was not a cause for concern.[ii]  By August the revenue report showed that Weiss was right as the state’s revenue was higher than the same month in 2013 and was ahead of the state forecast.[iii]

So, only two days after newspapers reported the good revenue numbers and only two months into the fiscal year, the Corrections Board announced to counties to expect few if any reimbursements for the remaining 10 months of the fiscal year.

Reoccurring Funding Shortfall for Prison Employee Pay

It seems that the state keeps getting behind in providing enough funding for prison employee holiday pay and overtime.  Great way to say we value you as employees!

For example, in the 2014 Fiscal Session $10 million in surplus funds were requested to catch up on what was owed to prison employees.  Only $5 million was approved.  (Wonder what the US Department of Labor and the Arkansas Department of Labor would think about a private employer putting holiday and overtime payments on hold?[iv])

Budget Priorities Out of Whack!

Were other projects pushed ahead of paying Arkansas’s just debts?  There is no doubt.  A long list of millions of dollars that were spent on good but optional programs funded by general revenues could be given here.  In addition, a long list of millions of dollars spent on local projects from General Improvement Funds (GIF) could also be added.  But, this is not about what projects are more worthy than others.  It is simply about the embarrassment of failing to provide enough funds to pay the state’s debts while optional “new” programs received funding.  Not paying just debts should never be used as a way to fund other priorities.

Consequences of the fake balanced budget

  • Let’s start with prison employees. Do you think they make so much money that they don’t mind the state not fully funding holiday pay and overtime?  I hope these employees do not go in debt while waiting to receive all their overtime and holiday pay.
  • Next, think about the consequences on county budgets. Counties had to figure out how to do their budgets while having to spend money on state inmates, without being reimbursed.  Counties that were considering improving county services or pay raises for county employees had to reevaluate their plans based on the state’s failure to meet its financial obligations.
  • Failure of the state to correct the problem in 2014 meant that money that should have been paid to counties instead flowed to other state programs that would not have gotten as much money if a real budget had been passed. Had Arkansas’ debts to counties been properly prioritized, the Revenue Stabilization Act would have done its job of adjusting payments to less essential programs. Instead, the problem was exacerbated. Not only does the state have to make up what it owes counties, but the warped priorities for Fiscal Year 2014-15 allowed needed funds to be distributed to less essential programs.
  • Because of the fake 2014-15 balanced budget, Governor Hutchinson has to play catch up on debts for which the state should have already paid. This means less funds for his priorities and for state programs in 2015-16.
  • Now that you have this information, does it erode your confidence in the state budget and cause you to wonder what other unfunded liabilities exist? Well it should.
  • BEWARE! When optional programs are funded ahead of the state’s debts, there is the danger that more taxes could be seen as the solution, instead of readjusting the state’s priorities.

Ending fake balanced budget.

Pass a real balanced budget: To have a budget that is a real balanced budget, first the state must take a realistic look at its debts before dividing its revenue among programs.  When you ask a bureaucrat[v] about unfunded liabilities you will probably be told “Arkansas doesn’t have any unfunded liabilities”; but county jail reimbursement and prison employee pay show otherwise. Second, the state’s budget must prioritize the funding of its debts ahead of good but discretionary projects.  Why would debts ever be put in less than the top funding category?

Shine light on the Joint Budget Committee: Don’t you think we are past due for the meetings of the Joint Budget Committee and its subcommittees to be available for viewing on the internet?  If so, why not let your elected representatives in the House and Senate know your opinion.

 2015-2016 Fiscal Year?

Will our 2015 Legislature prioritize and pay the debts first, such as those owed to counties and state employees, and ensure that essential programs are funded first?   Or will this Legislature continue to pile up debt, spend on new programs, and call it a balanced budget?



  • 89th General Assembly (serving Jan 2013-Dec 2014)—during Governor Mike Beebe (D).
    • Joint Budget Co-Chairmen:
      • Senate Larry Teague (D)
      • Representative Duncan Baird (R)
  • 2013 Regular Session (Jan-Apr 2013) – Revenue Stabilization provided $9,453,607 in Category A for FY 2013-14 for county jail reimbursement.
  • 2014 Fiscal Session (Jan-Mar 2014)
    1. FY 2013-2014 Budget Issues Re-visited
      • The funding provided in 2013 wasn’t enough for county jail reimbursement or for prison employee pay; therefore supplemental appropriations were passed for the remainder of FY 2013-2014.
        • County jail reimbursement received supplemental funding in a combined amount of $4.2 million in surplus funds, but this was still $3.7 million less than was requested to meet the short-fall.
      • $5 million in surplus funds were appropriated for prison employee pay, but $10 million was requested to meet the short-fall.
    2. FY 2014-2015 Budget Passed:
      • In spite of simultaneously having to address the prior budget shortfalls, the 89th General Assembly still did not increase Category “A” funding for county jail reimbursement under the Revenue Stabilization Bill. Category “A” funding for reimbursement stayed at the same level as the previous fiscal year. 
      • All the new money ($7 million) was put in Category “B.” This meant that unless Category “B” was miraculously funded, the county jail reimbursements funds would already be $4.2 million to $7 million less than needed.
  • 2014 Second Extraordinary Session (June-July 2014) No action was taken to help county jail reimbursement or prison employee pay. How do you have a special session ending in July and still run out of money for county jail reimbursement two months later?
  • August 5, 2014 – The Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports that during the month of July state revenues were lower by 1.9% less than the state forecast, but Richard Weiss, the Director of the Department of Finance and Administration described the drop as not a cause for concern.[vi]
  • September 3, 2014 – The Arkansas Democrat Gazette reports that in August state revenue was higher than the same month in 2013 and was ahead of the state forecast.[vii]
  • September 5, 2014 – The Board of Corrections told counties to expect few if any jail reimbursement payments for the next 10 months.[viii]
  • September 6, 2014 – The Democrat Gazettes reports that the Department of Corrections has $5.3 million in unpaid invoices.
  • October 2014 (1st week) – Governor Mike Beebe releases $1.1 million of rainy day funds to offset some of what the state owed counties.[ix]
  • October 6, 2014 – Pulaski County Judge Buddy Villines is reported as saying, “This is an example of the state using counties as a source of credit.[x]
  • October 6, 2014 – Roby Brock reports that Governor Beebe does see a solution before the 2015 session, and Senator Jonathan Dismang agreed. “We’re gearing up for pre-budget hearings right now and legislators have a full plate,” Dismang said. “I do not see the opportunity for us to have another special session before January.”[xi]
  • October 27, 2014 – FOX16 quoted County Judge Buddy Villines as saying “Even with Category A and B money, it’s still not enough to fund everything we’re billing the state for,[xii]
  • November 7, 2014 – The Democrat Gazette reported that the state owed $7 million for county jail reimbursement.[xiii]
  • 90th General Assembly (serving Jan 2015-Dec 2016)- term of Governor Asa Hutchinson (R).
    • Joint Budget Co-Chairs:
      • Senate Larry Teague (D) (Also JBC cochair in 2013)
      • Representative Lane Jean (R)
      • Note: Duncan Baird (2013 JBC cochair) now serving as the Budget Director for Gov Hutchinson.
  • January 29, 2015 — Governor Asa Hutchinson was quoted as having proposed a general revenue for county jail reimbursement of $11.4 million to $27.9 million in fiscal 2016. (The article doesn’t say if all would be in Category “A” or if part would still be in the “unlikely to be funded, Category “B.) The article also reports that Governor Hutchinson also proposed using $6 million in surplus funds toward what is owed for county jail reimbursements.[xiv]
  • 2015 Regular Session (Jan-Apr 2015) – 90th General Assembly will appropriate funds and designate priorities through Arkansas’ Revenue Stabilization Act.

For easy to read resources and info on the Arkansas budget and its process, go to:



[i] Panel passes $21.9 million plan for surplus, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 03/07/2014

[ii] Revenue below forecast as state starts fiscal ’15, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 08/05/2014

[iii] Arkansas revenue slightly up in August, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 09/03/2014


[v] e.g. DHS Director John Selig responded in a letter to Sen Cecile Bledsoe (Co-Chair of Public Health/Welfare/Labor) that “no unfunded liabilities exist” as a result of the Private Option Medicaid expansion when inquiries were made for that number by 17 legislators in the fall of 2014.

[vi] Revenue below forecast as state starts fiscal ’15, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 08/05/2014

[vii] Arkansas revenue slightly up in August, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 09/03/2014

[viii] Funds low for state’s jail-held inmates, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 09/06/2014

[ix] County Judges, Sheriffs seek special session for jail costs, The City Wire, 10/06/2014

[x] Ibid

[xi] Ibid


[xiii] Counties owed $7M for jailing state’s inmates, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 11/07/2014

[xiv] Hutchinson pitches 3% budget lift, Arkansas Democrat Gazette, 01/28/2015

1 Comment on Arkansas’ Fake Balanced Budget

  1. George Pritchett // March 2, 2015 at 7:05 pm //

    This is all done by design. It isn’t about the citizens of Arkansas, it is all about money and politicians. While we change the names from election cycle to election cycle nothing really changes. After the November 2014 elections and the swearing in process in early January many, and I would say most, began breaking campaign promises and doing the opposite of what those that voted for them expected them to do. Unfortunately we have to wait two more years to kick out the bad seeds and then we will likely get some just as bad. Principled people don’t appear to win or last long in politics. Just think we now have longer term limits , higher pay, more pork, continued Private Option for two more years (need I go on) from the new group we sent to Little Rock to fix things. Oh, I almost forgot and more excuses than one could ever want to listen to as to why they are doing what they are doing as opposed to doing what the people sent them there to do.

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