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Governor allots funds for 3 private colleges

Money to provide students grant aid

By Michael R. Wickline

This article was originally published June 18, 2017 at 3:47 a.m. Updated June 18, 2017 at 4:30 a.m.

Arkansas Governor Asa Hutchinson

Information about the Governor’s Emergency Fund

Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale

Uvalde Lindsey

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock

Bill Sample

Gov. Asa Hutchinson plans to distribute $150,000 out of an emergency fund to three private historically black colleges to provide grants to assist their students.

The schools are Arkansas Baptist College and Philander Smith College in Little Rock, and Shorter College in North Little Rock.

The governor's decision comes four months after legislation to create the Arkansas Future Grant scholarship program, which he supported, initially stalled in the Senate Education Committee.

The Arkansas Future Grant program covers tuition and fees for eligible students pursuing associate degrees and certificates in high-demand fields at public -- not private -- higher-education institutions.

On Feb. 15, the legislation was stalled in committee 4-4 after Sens. Joyce Elliott and Linda Chesterfield, both Democrats from Little Rock, voiced opposition because it excludes private schools, including the three historically black campuses.

But, a week later, on Feb. 22, the eight-member Senate Education Committee voted to recommend that the Senate pass the bill, which eventually became Act 316 of 2017.

From the Governor's Emergency Fund, Hutchinson plans to give $80,000 to Arkansas Baptist College; $55,000 to Philander Smith College; and $15,000 to Shorter College to provide Arkansas Future Grants, according to his proclamations. His proposal sailed through the eight-member legislative Governor's Emergency Fund Review Committee last week.

The governor's proclamations in the matter mention the Arkansas Future Grants, but he set no limits on which students receive the grant money, said Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis.

"The reason for the distribution to the three private colleges is that these schools previously benefited from scholarships and grants that were terminated under the ArFuture legislation," Hutchinson said Friday in a written statement in response to a question about whether giving emergency funds to the three schools was part of a deal with Democrats to unstall the bill in the Senate Education Committee.

Funding for the Arkansas Future Grant program is coming from two programs -- the Workforce Improvement Grant and Higher Education Opportunities Grant -- that the state is phasing out. The latter grant specifically aided low income students, some of whom attended the three private schools.

Hutchinson said directing emergency funding to the three schools "is to make up part of the difference and to ease the transition after the loss of student financial support.

"Legislators made me aware of this loss. There is no commitment on future funding, and there is no plan to extend ArFuture to private colleges," the governor wrote.

About $8.5 million in scholarships is available through the Arkansas Future Grant program, which has an application deadline of July 1, according to Department of Higher Education Director Maria Markham. There won't be a specified maximum grant amount under the program, but the average tuition and fees for a full-time student at a public two-year or technical school are less than $3,600 per year, she said.

As for an agreement between Hutchinson and Democrats to get the Arkansas Future Grant program bill through the committee, Elliott said "I wasn't certainly going to support it without getting something" for students at these colleges. She noted, however, that Republicans hold five of the eight seats on the committee.

Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, said, "I stopped [the bill] on principle. I voted with Sen. Chesterfield, Sen. Elliott and Sen. [Uvalde] Lindsey on principle, and they were probably able to get that agreement with the governor, but I did not do it for that reason and was not privy to it. We all [later] voted it out."

Lindsey, D-Fayetteville, said Hutchinson opposed amending the bill to include private colleges, but the governor indicated that "he would make them whole," referring to Arkansas Baptist, Philander Smith and Shorter.

Chesterfield could not be reached for comment by telephone Friday.

Since he became governor in January 2015, Hutchinson has set aside more than $750,000 from the Governor's Emergency Fund for more than 20 agencies and groups.

During the past decade, the largest amount spent out of the emergency fund was $472,500 in fiscal 2014, with $350,000 set aside for Pulaski County tornado debris removal, according to records of the state Department of Finance and Administration. Democrat Mike Beebe was governor then.

The latest flap over the emergency fund was in January 2007, when Gov. Mike Huckabee spent the last $13,000 in that fiscal year's $500,000 fund to partially pay the Department of Information Systems to crush the hard drives on the governor's office computers during the transition to Beebe's administration.

During the past 20 years, the most spent out of the fund was $868,483 in fiscal 2001, finance department records show. Huckabee, a Republican, set aside $240,000 for the Arkansas Development Finance Authority to use with federal funds to acquire 11 homes, relocate nine residents and help six homeowners replace their homes in Stamp near the former Red River Aluminum site, which some believed was the source of health problems.

Hutchinson's two largest proposed uses of emergency funds have been $100,000 apiece for the nonprofit group called Restore Hope and the Morgan Nick Foundation of Arkansas.

In August 2015, Hutchinson organized a two-day conference aimed at addressing problems with foster care and prisoner re-entry and called it the Governor's Restore Hope Summit.

In a proclamation dated May 20, 2016, he set aside $100,000 from the Governor's Emergency Fund for operational expenses of Restore Hope to unite and engage communities in meeting the needs of prison inmates and foster children needing homes.

A nonprofit group called Restore Hope Inc. registered with the secretary of state's office on Jan. 1, 2016, with J. Paul Chapman Jr. as its incorporator and organizer, according to the office's website.

In his proclamation dated May 20, 2016, the governor noted that he organized a summit called Restore Hope and he followed up by authorizing the formation of a nonprofit called Restore Hope "tasked with making real challenges in the way our communities respond to these programs.

"(T)he nonprofit is in need of financial resources for personnel and operational expenses, and private donations are not yet adequate to meet its needs," Hutchinson wrote in his one-page proclamation.

In another proclamation also signed May 20, 2016, Hutchinson set aside $100,000 for the Morgan Nick Foundation of Arkansas to provide direct services to the families of missing children.

"Private donations have never been entirely sufficient to adequately sustain the operating costs of the Morgan Nick Foundation," the governor said in his proclamation.

Asked last week why he set aside the most money so far for the two groups, Hutchinson said, "They are both two statewide needs addressing foster care, prison re-entry and child safety.

"The use of discretionary funds does not require long-term financial obligations of the state," he said.

When asked how many emergency funding requests he's received, the governor responded: "Emergency and supplemental funding requests to my office are expressed as a general need, and the request is not directed to a specific funding source. When the need is determined to be valid, then we start looking for an appropriate discretionary fund that might work."

The Bureau of Legislative Research interprets state law to require that the Governor's Emergency Fund Committee review emergency and nonemergency uses of the fund, said Kevin Anderson, an assistant director of fiscal services for the bureau.

Arkansas Code Annotated 19-2-404 authorizes the governor to issue a proclamation declaring that an emergency exists "in the event of riots, threatened riots, sabotage, public insurrection, threatened insurrection, storm, flood, famine or other public calamity which jeopardizes the public peace, health, and safety of citizens of Arkansas that calls for immediate action."

Other proposed uses of emergency money must go before the Governor's Emergency Fund Review Committee, whose members are the chairmen and vice chairmen of Legislative Joint Auditing Committee and Legislative Council.

The committee started meeting last year, said Marty Garrity, director of the Bureau of Legislative Research.

Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, said, "In the previous administrations, they were just letting us know they were using [the emergency fund]. But that is not what the law says, so we are going to be following the statute."

It's been rare for the committee to decline to review any governor's request to use emergency funds, according to Anderson.

During its 7-minute meeting last week, the committee declined to review Hutchinson's request to give $7,500 to the nonprofit Sonny Boy Blues Society for increased safety and security for the Arkansas King Biscuit Blues Festival at Helena-West Helena. Over the past 20 years, the society has received some emergency funds.

"This festival has grown into a popular attraction, drawing over 100,000 visitors, outstripping the resources of the Helena/West Helena Police Department and Phillips County Sheriff's Office as they try to provide adequate protection and security for the event," Hutchinson said in his proclamation.

But Rep. Richard Womack, R-Arkadelphia, pressed Hutchinson aide David Bell, "Why is this now an emergency? Who dropped the ball and is not prepared?"

In response, Bell said the governor provided the same amount of funding to the nonprofit last year.

"It is something that the governor wanted to go ahead and do again this year," Bell said. "You are correct. It is not something that's a surprise. But it is something that helps with public safety and helps with keeping the cost down for the nonprofit that's running that."

But Sample said, "I just think this is a slippery slope that you are going down."

SundayMonday on 06/18/2017

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