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Deficit Threatens Ark. Aid Hike

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Despite mounting fiscal problems in the state, public education in Arkansas is slated to receive nearly $200 million more during the 1987-89 budget cycle than was appropriated during the current biennium.

Under the 1987-89 budget approved by the state legislature earlier this month, more than $1.7 billion was appropriated for precollegiate education; during the current biennium, $1.51 billion was allocated for K-12 education. The total state budget for the next two years will increase to $3.5 billion.

Despite the projected increase, state education officials said they had doubts that they would receive the additional funds.

Because state law prohibits deficit spending, money appropriated for education during the current biennium was withheld when revenues fell to lower-than-expected levels. In January, education officials were forced to cut $27 million, which was restored during the recently completed legislative session, and an additional $3.9-million cut was ordered last week.

Kay Williams, a spokesman for the department of education, said officials were doubtful that they would receive $51 million that was appropriated for precollegiate education but that was assigned the lowest funding priority by state lawmakers. Also, she said, one-half of another $28.8 million earmarked for education in the next-to-lowest category may also be at risk.

"The legislature did not manage to cut any programs--but it was close,'' she said.

Income-Tax Revision

The major fiscal measure adopted by the legislature was a change in the state income tax, which is expected to raise an additional $30-million during the next fiscal year. But lawmakers defeated two proposals that would have increased sales-tax revenues: one by raising the tax by one-quarter of 1 percent, and the other by repealing several sales-tax exemptions.

Observers say it is likely that Gov. Bill Clinton will call a special session of the legislature to raise additional funds.

State lawmakers also rejected a proposal that would have given certain school districts two additional years to meet academic standards that will take effect on June 1 as a result of school-improvement legislation. Districts that do not meet the standards will be consolidated into neighboring districts.

The bill would have provided an extension to districts that showed a "good faith'' effort to meet the standards, but that lacked sufficient state funds to implement them. The education department estimates that at least 8 of the state's 332 districts will have to be consolidated.

In addition, the legislature rejected a proposal that would have lowered the mandatory school-attendance age from 7 to 5.

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