Lawmakers favor expanded ethics panel

LITTLE ROCK -- The Legislature's Joint Budget Committee on Tuesday endorsed legislation enabling the Arkansas Ethics Commission to add office space and hire more workers.

Senate Bill 26 would allow the commission to have 12 employees -- three more than it currently has -- and appropriate $930,090 to the commission in the fiscal year starting July 1. The commission's current appropriation is $729,584.

Last year, commission Director Graham Sloan asked that the Legislature for funds to allow the commission to add three staffers staff members and move from 910 W. Second St, Suite 100, in Little Rock to a larger office in fiscal 2016.

Sloan said SB26 would allow the commission to add two attorney specialists and a compliance specialist.

The commission already has two attorney specialists, two compliance specialists, two administrative specialists, an information technology manager, a business operations specialist and a director.

Sloan has said the commission has operated with the same number of employees since 2000, but the number and complexity of ethics complaints filed against elected officials and candidates have increased significantly in recent years.

In other action Tuesday, the Joint Budget Committee approved a request from state personnel administrator Kay Terry to approve Gov. Asa Hutchinson's decision to hire Phyllis Bell -- the wife of state Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena -- to an administrative assistant position.

Under state law, "no person whose spouse is elected to a constitutional office may, after the spouse is elected to the constitutional office and during the term for which the spouse is elected, enter into employment with any state agency without the prior approval of the Joint Budget Committee during a legislative session, the Legislative Council between legislative sessions and the governor," Terry said in a letter dated Jan. 28 to the Legislature's personnel subcommittee.

The Arkansas Transparency website lists Phyllis Bell as an administrative assistant in the governor's office with a salary of $50,000. She started working Jan. 13. The maximum authorized salary for the position is $53,101, Terry said.

Terry said late Tuesday afternoon that the governor's office wasn't initially aware that the approval of the Joint Budget Committee was required for Bell to work for the governor's office, and "as soon as they discovered it [last week], they sent the paperwork over there."

Terry said the same thing happened under then-Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe a few years ago.

NW News on 02/05/2015