Fiscal 2016 budget cut vexes ethics panel chief

The head of the state's Ethics Commission said Friday that his organization faces a "crisis" if it gets stuck with a budget that falls well below the amount promised by legislators earlier this year.

During a monthly meeting of the commission, Director Graham Sloan told commissioners that his staff will have less money than was budgeted this year and nearly a quarter less than was earmarked by legislators this past session.

The cut, which Sloan said he learned of earlier this month, would drop funding for the next fiscal year from about $900,000 to about $705,000, which is just under the commission's current authorization for this fiscal year.

Sloan said the cut comes at a point when the commission -- which writes and enforces ethics rules and procedures for elected officials -- has never been busier and will cause his office to reduce staff and services.

"The General Assembly understood why we needed more people, they understood why we needed more operations," Sloan said. "Our actual funding [next year] is, you know, less than the current fiscal year. It's just a, it's a punch in the stomach."

Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed Act 32 in February, allowing the commission to hire more attorneys and compliance officers, and authorizing an increase to about $930,090.

That figure was first recommended by Gov. Mike Beebe last year when the outgoing governor created a suggested budget and lawmakers went through the steps to authorize the funding.

But authorization and getting the money are very different, according to budget officials.

Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis said Hutchinson's recommendation was that the Ethics Commission, among other boards, commissions and state agencies, be brought down to base-level funding and then take a one-percent cut.

The co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, said that since the Ethics Commission is grouped into the Miscellaneous Agencies Fund Account of the state's budget, its funding is subject to Hutchinson's discretion.

Earlier this week, Sloan said he submitted a letter to Hutchinson outlining pressing needs for more funding.

Sloan compared his group's work to an electric utility in that there are ups and downs in terms of complaints and investigations submitted by and to his group. When the metaphorical summer comes, he needs staffing to handle the many allegations of misconduct by candidates.

In the 2012 election cycle, his office fielded 101 cases. In the 2014 election cycle, that number grew to 138.

"It's not just more cases," Sloan said. "They've become more complicated."

In addition to its plans to relocate to a bigger office able to accommodate more members of the public during meetings, which often involve high-profile political cases, Sloan planned on hiring two more attorneys and another compliance officer.

Facing the current figures, he will have to reduce training and outreach services and let an employee go.

Chairman of the commission, attorney William Bird, said he hoped that Hutchinson could find more money before the next fiscal year.

The passage of Amendment 94 by voters in November and Act 1280 by legislators put into place a series of new ethics laws including restrictions on gifts to lawmakers

With an altered fundraising and lobbying landscape, Sloan said it was likely that his office would continue to see a substantially greater workload.

Brandon Sharp, a budget administrator with the Department of Finance and Administration, pointed out that nearly all government agencies experienced a similar drop in funding in order to support tax cuts, including a $100 million income tax cut pushed by Hutchinson to benefit Arkansans earning between $21,000 and $75,000.

He said he couldn't speak for the governor but that he and others were looking at other options to find more money for the state's elections watchdog.

"The Ethics Commission wasn't alone [in cuts]," Robinson said. "There are some options, one of those options is the rainy day fund, but[the governor's office is] still studying that. That hasn't been finalized until their budget gets finalized sometime in the next few weeks."

Metro on 05/19/2015