Mr. President, Mr. Speaker, and welcome back Mr. Massanelli.
It’s a nostalgic occasion for those in this room who are attending their last session because of term limits, saving except of course a special session which all of us hope is unnecessary.
So for all of you, I hope you will drink up and enjoy the actual feeling that you have every time you sit at this desk and pass on major public policy issues for your constituents specifically, and the constituents of our state at large.
I recall the feelings I had in my last session as a state senator and the nostalgia will creep back in as the session progresses. It is an honored group that you all are comprised of, and you don’t get enough credit for all of the hard work that you do. We have our differences from time to time. You have your differences among each other from time to time, but in the final analysis, you’re the first branch of government, and you’re the first branch of government for a reason.
The founding fathers decided that the legislative branch would be the folks that are in charge of public policy and in charge of the money. And since you’re in charge of public policy and in charge on the money, the other two branches of government usually fall in line. It is my job to propose. It is your job to dispose. That doesn’t mean that you’re free from proposing yourself because you have that obligation as well and I receive your proposals and sometimes adopt them as my own, sometimes applaud your initiative, and sometimes wonder where you came up with the idea to begin with.
You all dispose, but if I can help you dispose, that’s part of my job as well. So I don’t shirk from the responsibility of being of help and assistance to you as I can. I am also cognizant and mindful of the internal workings of these two houses and have always been mindful of how I felt as a senator when I thought a governor overstepped his bounds in dealing with the internal policies, and I try to refrain from doing that.
This is our second historic fiscal session. The first session was short, sweet and to the point. It was a fiscal session and you had another matter that you dealt with, but you dealt with in a form of consensus that caused it not to prolong or unduly harass the intent of the voters with regard to the purpose of a fiscal session.
I urge and applaud you to take that same approach this time. Many of you will be filing for reelection or filing for other offices within the timeframe of this session, and I know I can speak for you when I say you all want to be out of here as fast as I want you to be out of here. Obviously, after first having done the people’s business.
We have together weathered this economic recession in a fashion and a manner that most other states would be envious of. We are not immune. We’ve had our share of problems. We are not immune. We’ve had our people laid off. We are not immune. We’ve seen certain revenue sources decline, some of which we are asked to address in this session.
Nevertheless, compared to virtually every other state in the country, Arkansas has weathered this economic downturn – the worst in my lifetime – better than virtually any other state, and a large part of that is the conservative, rational, reasonable budgetary approaches that you all have taken, and you deserve credit for it.
I will tell you that we are continuing that theme with my proposed budget. It is a relatively flat budget. Two major areas of increase are first of all K-12, with adequacy increases as defined by you. The Constitution, the statutory laws, and the Lakeview case all recognize that the Legislature will determine adequacy and once it is determined by the Legislature, it’s incumbent on the rest of us to fall in line and fund that adequacy. My proposed budget does precisely that. It addresses that first priority of K-12 and adequacy, both in the letter and the spirit of the law.
The other major increase in the proposed budget is for Medicaid. It is a substantial increase as increases go for this session, but merely a small portion of what we’re going to face in the long run going down the road. That’s why we continue to try to work together for issues that won’t be addressed necessarily in this session but of a substantive nature going forward to try to get a handle on the ever-escalating healthcare costs that strike all of us in the private sector as well as the public sector but specifically strikes all of us in state government because of our Medicaid responsibilities.
Other than that and a few minor tweaks, the rest of the budget is relatively flat. I think all of us would like to see increases for our state employees, and I’d be the first to say I wished we’d had it. We’ve hunted, and searched, and looked to try to find it. Hopefully there will be some savings in various budgets with some degree of merit, or some degree of individual assistance can be provided by the agencies, but across-the-board from the legislative session is something that there’s just not the money to provide.
We will also ask for some supplemental funding. Most of you have seen that. It’s been your leadership that requested that this information and my requests in that regard be disseminated early so that you had the opportunity to look at it, and digest it, and make up your minds as to the validity of any of those requests. That’s all been done, and hopefully you’ve had the opportunity look at that.
We had about $70 million in surplus money, which incidentally, that’s been lauded nationally, since most states haven’t had any surplus money. Of that 70, roughly 30 million is being requested in supplementals. For those who did not know or may have forgotten, what is not spent in supplementals goes into your General Improvement Fund pot next time as a basis, or a base, for general improvement monies, which are always needed for the capital needs of our state. But in the interim, in the meantime, those necessary items to be funded with supplmentals are usually the first call off of those monies, and the request is in there for all of you to be able to see with regard to what those requests are.
There may be some other items that members have suggested. I have tried to be open and responsive to understanding those requests. The only thing I would ask is that you keep them as limited as possible and that you work together in a fashion that it doesn’t delay this session and that it doesn’t break faith with the people who actually voted to have annual sessions in the even numbered years, which would be devoted strictly to fiscal matters. I think the people understand that if there’s a tweak or two here in a very limited fashion that requires to be done that they can live with that if it doesn’t prolong or otherwise endanger the main purpose of this session.
Lastly, let me say that there’s this old adage that all of us, I think, have been privy to from time to time about, ‘Everybody hates Congress, but everybody loves their congressman. Everybody hates the Legislature, but everybody loves their legislator.’
Well, in today’s world, those things are changing a little bit. You all have seen the polls and heard the anecdotal evidence. Congress’ public popularity is at an all-time low. And what we’re hearing more often than not now is they don’t like anybody up there. The University of Arkansas poll, which came out last fall as I recall, shocked a lot of people because it bragged on the public opinion ratings of the Arkansas Legislature. I was frankly pleasantly surprised because for years I’d heard that adage about nobody liked us when I was in the Legislature, but everybody liked their legislator.
So when I saw the approval ratings for the Arkansas Legislature that was significantly higher than what most people thought it would have been, it made me proud of you. You can fuss, and you can fight, and you can argue, and that’s what the process is all about. But when you do it in a civil manner; when you do it with an eye or a view toward ultimately being able to come together to resolve the problems of our people; when you distinguish yourself from those other places around the country, where those other places and Washington who just fight for the sake of fighting, then that goes down in the eyes of our people as a very positive sign. It does not go unnoticed.
You all can continue that tradition in this fiscal session. I hope that you will strive to continue to be able to do what I heard the Speaker ask the House to do in his speech a little bit earlier, and that is to, when you disagree, do it agreeably; when you want to solve a problem, you try to build a consensus; and when you go home, you realize that you all are charged with the responsibility of making Arkansas a better place to live, to work, to raise a family and to educate ourselves.
I have great respect for the legislative process. I spent 20 years sitting where you sit. It is not the prettiest form of government, it’s certainly not the most efficient form of government, but in the history of the world, there has never been a better system of government for self-rule, for representative government, for democracy and for the people than this form of government. By your actions and by your attendance and by your hard work, you continue that tradition – a tradition the American people started over two centuries ago and which you continue today. I’m there to help when I can; I’m there to listen when I need to. That doesn’t mean we’ll always agree, but what it does mean is that we are in this together.
We have two bosses. I said in my first inaugural that we represent a proud people and a mighty God. Let’s make them proud.