Arkansas lawmakers begin fall budget hearings as election and questions about finances loom



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LITTLE ROCK, Arkansas — Arkansas lawmakers began talks Tuesday about crafting next year's budget amid the uncertainty of the midterm elections and competing demands for increased funding for prisons, schools and other needs.

A joint legislative panel opened the fall budget hearings, as lawmakers began reviewing budgets ahead of next year's legislative session. The Arkansas Legislative Council and Joint Budget Committee planned to spend the opening days of the hearings focusing on smaller boards and commissions.

The hearings are being held in the middle of a heated and expensive campaign for governor. Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe leaves office in January, but his administration is required by law to submit a budget proposal to the panel on Nov. 13.

Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Mike Ross and Republican Asa Hutchinson have been touting competing tax cut plans that could dramatically alter the budget plans. The incoming governor will be able to review agencies' requests and make his own recommendations after the election.

"I think we're all going to be waiting and watching for that, because no matter who the next governor is they're going to have their budget priorities," said Rep. John Edwards, D-Little Rock, co-chairman of the Legislative Council. "That's one thing we're going to be keeping an eye on."

Lawmakers are also expected to face a growing list of funding increase requests from state agencies. State correction officials have said they plan to ask the Legislature for $100 million to build a new prison, and officials have said an additional $65 million is needed for school facilities.

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