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4.7.24 – By ANDREW DEMILLO Associated Press

Arkansas lawmakers are convening at the Capitol and their top agenda item is taking up Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ $6.3 billion proposed budget for the coming year.

The session also could include efforts to tweak or outright repeal a law dealing with cryptocurrency mining operations.

Sanders, a Republican who took office last year, is scheduled to kick off this year’s session on Wednesday with an address to members of the House and Senate.

“Our preference is to keep it very limited, and that’s been our practice” since voters approved annual sessions in 2008, House Speaker Matthew Shepherd said.

Here’s a look at what to expect during the fiscal session:

Sanders last month proposed a budget for the fiscal year beginning July 1 that increases state spending by 1.76% over the previous year. Nearly all of the $109 million increase would go toward education and is related to a law Sanders signed last year that created a new school voucher program.

“As Governor, I’ve promised to Arkansans to limit the size and growth of government while still investing in areas of greatest need like education and public safety,” Sanders said in a statement. “My proposed budget accomplishes this with only a 1.76% increase over last fiscal year, far below the 3% year-over-year increase our state has averaged in the recent past, and my top priority this fiscal session is its passage.”

House and Senate leaders have said they think there is support for the budget plan in the majority-Republican Legislature. But Democrats have said they hope to highlight their concerns about the voucher program’s costs.

“This is the first year of the law. What does this portend for future years?” Senate Minority Leader Greg Leding said.

Changes to the cryptocurrency mining law and temporary adjustments to pay plans for state employees are likely to come up, despite a requirement that non-budget bills gain a two-thirds vote of both the House and Senate to even be considered in even-numbered years.

There has been backlash from some communities to limits enacted last year to local governments’ ability to regulate cryptocurrency mines, which are data centers requiring large amounts of computing power and electricity.

Sen. Joshua Bryant, a Republican who sponsored the measure last year, said he’s working on legislation to address concerns that the limits interfere with addressing complaints about the mines’ noise and impact on the community. Bryant said the legislation also is aimed at preventing Chinese ownership of these facilities.

“I just want to try to have good policy and correct the ills of the past,” Bryant said.

But Republican Sen. Bryan King said he doesn’t think those changes go far enough and he is working on legislation to repeal the law.

“We’re learning so much more that should have been told on the front end” about last year’s law, King said.

Sanders didn’t say whether she would support changes, but spokeswoman Alex Henning said the governor “will continue to protect the safety of Arkansans, fight back against China buying up our land, and encourage Arkansas businesses to be good neighbors.”

Sanders has said she also plans to seek temporary changes to the pay plan for state employees. Sanders last month proposed a one-time 3% increase in state employee pay, and raising every state employees’ pay to at least $15 an hour by July 1. The governor has said the changes are needed to make the state more competitive in recruiting employees.

The governor has said she would seek a more comprehensive overhaul of the pay plan in the 2025 session.

Legislative leaders have said they want to wait to take up another tax cut until later in the fiscal year to look at more reductions. Sanders has signed into law two income tax cuts.

“Clearly a supermajority of the Legislature wants to continue cutting taxes, the governor wants to continue to cut income taxes,” Senate President Bart Hester said. “We just want to do it in a continued responsible manner.”

The governor’s office stopped short of saying whether the governor had agreed to hold off on tax cuts until later. Henning said Sanders would “continue to work with the legislature to look for every opportunity to responsibly phase out the state income tax.”