The nine-member Arkansas Red River Commission was in meetings Friday to determine what it needs to do to stay alive after the Arkansas General Assembly eliminated its budget, giving the funds to two Southwest Arkansas community colleges and the governor's office.
The nine-member Arkansas Red River Commission was in meetings Friday to determine what it needs to do to stay alive after the Arkansas General Assembly eliminated its budget, giving the funds to two Southwest Arkansas community colleges and the governor's office. There were no committee hearings during the recent 89th Arkansas General Assembly on Section six of what are now Acts 1518/1519, so there was no testimony on the $1 million contract to which the Commission has been committed in completing a 40-year navigation feasibility study for the Red River when the House/Senate Joint Budget Committee voted out its General Improvement Fund bills that included stripping the Commission of its entire $10 million budget. The Commission's budget, under Acts 1518/1519, was divided between GIF appropriations for Cossatot Community College of the University of Arkansas, the University of Arkansas Community College at Hope, and Governor Mike Beebe's “Executive Discretionary” funding. The colleges were given $3.5 million each and the governor's fund got $3 million, and the remaining $488,379 went to other projects. Hempstead County representatives to the Commission Randy Bobo and Warren Plyler have not been available for comment. However, former state senator Wayne Dowd, of Texarkana, acting as spokesman for the Commission said that, while he believes the legislative sleight-of-hand was not meant to be a policy decision, the Commission needs to know something definitive before the funds are released June 30. “It's not an easy question to answer,” Dowd said of the Commission's status. “Basically, they took all of our money. Whether that is intended to shut us down, I don't know.” Dowd said the Commission had $10,488,379 in its trust accounts; $8 million in trust principal and the remaining $2-plus million in interest. The bulk of the funds in the principal trust were to be used as matching funds for federal money in the state's portion of the first lock and dam project in the general Red River navigation program, he said. The interest money was for ongoing Commission operations, which includes an office and one employee. “We actually do not touch any money at all; it's all done through the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission,” Dowd said. He noted, for example, that the Commission was notified recently that the lease agreement for its copying machine had expired, as well as the lease for its postage meter. “And, then, Friday, they told us they voted to take all our money,” Dowd said. For 13 years, the Commission has operated under specific guidelines from the U. S. Corps of Engineers on the feasibility of Red River navigation; but a sea change by the Corps appeared to doom it until 2012, when the Corps agreed to re-evaluate the idea based upon the update in the feasibility study which the Commission was about to complete when it lost its funding. Assuming that the legislative move did not represent a policy change to abandon the 40 year navigation project, Dowd said there is one other possibility. The $3 million in the “Executive Discretionary” fund is actually designated for the Red River Waterways Trust Fund. Dowd points out that Arkansas Governor Mike Beebe can fund the remaining contract obligation for the Commission to complete the feasibility study update. “The only other course is if the governor would authorize the $1 million out of his emergency fund,” he said. “That is a long shot deal. My guess, and past experience is that they used to call it the Governor's Emergency Fund, that he could release whatever amount he sees fit to release; and, in my opinion, he could do that.” As to the origins of the funds raid, Dowd credits State Senator Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, with making the late-session funding shift. “Hickey told me on the phone, and some others, that he was for this one because he wanted to improve education,” Dowd said. “The House members didn't know anything about it until the Friday before, then Monday they had to vote on it.” Dowd's greatest complaint is that there was no chance for the Commission to make its case. “It did not give us an opportunity to tell anybody what we're doing,” he said. Hickey argues that he saved the funding from leaving Southwest Arkansas. “We had the opportunity to bring $7 million of that directly back to Southwest Arkansas,” he said. “After this happened, some of the commissioners came back and were asking about studies.” But, Hickey isn't convinced that the Red River project needs to be pursued. “From my standpoint, I believe we have to get some assurances from the federal government that the navigation project can and will be completed before we pour any more money into this thing,” he said. However, State Senator Larry Teague, D-Nashville, the senior member of the Southwest Arkansas legislative delegation, thinks the feasibility study update, at least, could be saved. “I'm confident that Senator Hickey and I will work to find that money,” Teague said. UACCH Chancellor Chris Thomason said his office has no stake in any policy determination concerning the Red River Commission. “I've had no negative feedback, and wouldn't expect any, because no-one here at UACCH was involved in a policy determination about the Red River Commission,” Thomason said. “We are thankful that Senator Hickey was able to ensure that those funds, when it was determined that they were going to be re-allocated to a different area of public policy, that he was very diligent in trying to ensure that they remain in Southwest Arkansas, and that Miller County and Hempstead County would see the benefit of those funds.”