It was the bill that nobody wanted to claim; but, nobody in the Southwest Arkansas legislative delegation could vote against it in the final two days of the 89th Arkansas General Assembly.
It was the bill that nobody wanted to claim; but, nobody in the Southwest Arkansas legislative delegation could vote against it in the final two days of the 89th Arkansas General Assembly. What is commonly known as “general improvement” funding stems from the sausage grinder that is the legislative appropriations process in Arkansas; and, it is jealously guarded by legislators because of the local applications of state funds which, by law, must have some appreciable statewide benefit. That twist was decided by the Arkansas Supreme Court in 2007. Consequently, HB2232 and SB634, which became Acts 1518 and 1519, respectively, passed through the entire legislative process within two days at the close of the session April 23, which presents a case in point of a legislative sleight-of-hand for which no-one will take credit. HB2232 (Act 1518) was filed March 11 and sent to the Joint Budget Committee the next day. It was voted out of Joint Budget with a “do pass” recommendation on April 19, the Friday prior to the recess of the session on Tuesday, April 23. On April 22, the bill sailed through the House on a 79-13 vote, with State Representative Brent Talley, D-McCaskill, voting in favor and State Representative Prissy Hickerson, R-Texarkana, voting in favor. The bill rolled through the Senate the next day on a “do pass” recommendation in the Senate committee of the whole to pass 28-6, with State Senator Jim Hickey, R-Texarkana, and State Senator Larry Teague, D-Nashville, voting in favor of it. In similar fashion, SB634, filed Feb. 19, passed out of the Joint Budget Committee with a “do pass” recommendation and passed the Senate committee of the whole on April 19, but was not passed out of the Senate until the following Monday, on a 28-6 vote, with Hickey and Teague voting in favor. It passed out of the House the next day on a vote of 78-14, with Talley and Hickerson voting in favor. Both bills were amended once on April 19 to include more than 50 pages of specific GIF appropriations attached in the Joint Budget Committee. The appropriations Included within the identical 60 pages of each act is an appropriation of $3.5 million for the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope and $3.5 million for Cossatot Community College of the University of Arkansas. The appropriations are for “...construction, renovation, maintenance, critical maintenance, equipment, security enhancements, technology upgrades/equipment and library resources...” The appropriations are in what is commonly called the “A” portion of the General Improvement Funding, which are to be fully funded by June 30. Another $3 million is appropriated under both acts for transfer to the Red River Waterways Trust Fund for “...costs associated with the Red River Waterway project” under the “Executive Discretionary Fund” which is controlled by the office of the governor. By law, GIF funding is, essentially, surplus money; or, in this case, money that is re-allocated within the legislative budgetary structure. Section six of both acts specifically redirects $10,488,379 out of the Red River Waterways Project Trust Fund and into the 89th Session Projects Account of the General Improvement Fund. The Red River Waterways Project Trust Fund is overseen by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission in behalf of the Arkansas Red River Commission, which is headquartered in Texarkana. The Red River Commission was established in 1972 as a mechanism to help landowners along the Red River in Arkansas prevent river erosion and flooding via infrastructure and levies; and, to promulgate navigation along the Red River to the Texas/Oklahoma borders. The re-allocation of the funds essentially wiped out the budgeted funding for the Red River Commission. The legislative architect UACCH Chancellor has credited State Senator Jim Hickey, R-Texarkana, with obtaining the $3.5 million GIF appropriation, which will be used to expand the footprint of UACCH-Texarkana. “The funding that was secured by Senator Hickey, the GIF funding, allowed us to expedite our closing in advance of the expiration of our option,” Thomason said. “It will also allow us to begin this summer to do substantial cleanup work on the entire 22-plus acre campus footprint; and, will allow us to immediately address parking issues by allowing us to expand our parking area.” Hickey, however, does not take personal credit for the appropriation, although he does agree with it. “That money was just in an account; something like $10 million,” he said. “It has in no way been appropriated for Southwest Arkansas, and it has been sitting there all these years.” Hickey argues that the RRC fund had been raided in the past by legislators outside of Southwest Arkansas. “Last session, there was $1 million pulled out of there and put in the general fund; it didn't come back to Southwest Arkansas,” he said. Hickerson declined to comment, forwarding a Hope Star e-mail on the subject to Hickey. Rep. Talley, who hails from McCaskill, said he didn't know about the appropriation until it was too late to act. “I was not on the committee that approved the language to adversely impact the Red River Trust Fund and was alarmed at language to adversely impact this fund after reviewing the language of the amended HB2232 just days before the floor vote,” Talley said. “I have worked with the Arkansas Red River Commission for many years and appreciate their vision, work, and service to this region of the state. After further research, I appreciate the efforts that were made to keep these funds in Southwest Arkansas.” Teague, who is the Senate chair of Joint Budget, disavowed any knowledge of the architecture of the appropriation. “I've gotten pushback for that; and, I wasn't the architect of that, even though most folks are giving me credit for that, I wasn't the architect,” he said. “In fact, it was kind of agreed to by the time I knew what was happening.” Teague said he was sandbagged by the move. “When we're doing that, we're always looking for pots of money,” he said. “Somebody saw the $10 million sitting over there. I don't know if it was Senator (Michael) Lamoureux, the Pro Tem, or Rep. (Davy) Carter, the Speaker, or who saw it. But, when we started out, we were going to take a million of it; and, they've been robbed a million a time or two. “And, that's where I thought we were, and I could live with that,” Teague said. “And, all of a sudden, we're taking all of it; and, as soon as I was aware of that, I called and said, 'Look, this isn't going to be popular in my world.' But, by then, it was a done deal.” Stopping the appropriation, Teague said, was impossible at that juncture. “It takes a simple majority to pass that bill; so, it's going to pass, regardless,” he said. Voting against the GIF bill, Teague pointed out, is simply not done. “I have suggested to my colleagues that those members who voted against the general improvement bill, but are still taking their money; that, two years from now, that shouldn't be the case,” he said. “If you don't support it, you're saying you don't need the money; but, you can't have your cake and eat it, too.”