Two lawmakers filed four bills this week that, if passed, would establish the state Department of Agriculture and three other reorganized agencies as Cabinet-level agencies, part of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's plan to reshape Arkansas government.
Hutchinson wants to reduce the number of state agencies reporting to him from 42 to 15. The bills will be considered in the regular legislative session that starts Monday.
In addition to the Agriculture Department, the measures would establish the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism; the Department of Corrections; and the Department of Inspector General as Cabinet-level agencies.
House Bill 1117 by Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, and Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, is a 54-page bill that would, among other things, merge the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission into the Department of Agriculture. The Natural Resources Commission establishes policy and makes funding and regulatory decisions related to soil conservation, nutrient management, water rights, dam safety, and water resources planning and development, according to its website.
"At first glance, a lot of it seems to align with our current policy," said Jeff Pitchford, director of state affairs, public affairs and government relations for the Arkansas Farm Bureau. The organization says it has about 190,000 families as members in Arkansas. "We really do appreciate working with the governor and his staff on it. ... We are down to the technical issues."
The Farm Bureau's board will consider taking a position on the proposal during the next two weeks, said Stanley Hill, vice president of public affairs and government relations for the group.
Under the Farm Bureau's policy 12 -- approved at its Nov. 30 state convention -- "any transition, transformation or consolidation" of the Agriculture Department should include that:
• No change be made in regulatory functions of the individual agencies with the department.
• Special revenue collected by the individual agencies will be maintained and devoted to their intended purpose.
• The state Plant Board, Livestock and Poultry Commission, and Forestry Commission -- now part of the current Agriculture Department -- will retain their statutory powers, authorities, duties and functions.
• All employees will report to their department heads, and department heads will report to the secretary of agriculture, and individual agencies will implement the regulations of the independent boards and commissions.
• No change will be made from the current administration and appointment process of the promotion boards.
• The agriculture secretary will be a permanent member of the Pollution Control and Ecology Commission.
• The Natural Resources Commission will be placed in the Agriculture Department.
Putting the agriculture secretary on the Pollution Control and Economy Commission will be part of a bill coming to create the Department of Energy and Environment, said Hutchinson spokesman J.R. Davis.
"We have worked with the Farm Bureau on meeting the policy goals of Farm Bureau and at the same time accomplishing the objective of a clear chain of command for personnel," the Republican governor said in a written statement Wednesday. "I understand the legislation meets the policies set by the Farm Bureau membership and the Farm Bureau has been very supportive of our transformation efforts."
In 2017, Hutchinson unsuccessfully tried to reorganize the Agriculture Department. The proposal barely cleared a House committee before it was defeated twice on the House floor. The Farm Bureau used an email campaign against the bill.
The other bills filed by Rep. Davis and Hester are:
• House Bill 1118, to merge the departments of Arkansas Heritage and of Parks and Tourism, creating the Department of Parks, Heritage and Tourism.
• House Bill 1115, to merge the departments of Community Correction and of Correction into the Department of Corrections.
• House Bill 1116, to create the Department of Inspector General.
Last month, the two lawmakers filed House Bill 1072 to create the Department of Health as a Cabinet-level department and transfer 46 entities ranging from the Board of Nursing to the surgeon general to the department. Rep. Davis and Hester also filed House Bill 1071 to create the Department of Veterans Affairs as a Cabinet-level department and transfer several programs to it.
House Bill 1070 by the lawmakers would create 15 Cabinet-level departments. The head of each department would be called a secretary appointed by the governor.
Other departments would be: commerce; education; finance and administration; human services; labor and licensing; military; public safety; transformation and shared services; and veterans affairs.
Rep. Davis said he hopes to file the bills to create nine other Cabinet-level departments by the end of next week.
Rep. Davis said he and Hester are filing 16 separate bills to seek comment from the public and lawmakers about the governor's proposed reorganization. They plan to withdraw the 16 bills and file one consolidated bill of an estimated 1,500 pages.
A handful of lawmakers said they've heard concerns from bankers about merging the Bank Department into what would be called the Department of Commerce, though that bill hasn't been filed yet.
Lorrie Trogden, president of the Arkansas Bankers Association, said association officials, who represent about 97 banks, met with the governor and his staff last week because they wanted to make sure that there weren't unintentional consequences resulting from the proposed merger.
Association officials were satisfied with what the governor told them, she said. The association doesn't plan to lobby for or against the proposal, she said.
The governor also proposes merging the Department of Workforce Services, Economic Development Commission, Securities Department, Insurance Department and Development Finance Authority into the Commerce Department.
Rep. Davis said he hopes the bill clears the House early in the session.
Hester said he hopes the bill clears the Legislature by the end of February to give agencies time to plan for the reorganization, which would become effective July 1. He said he expects questions about the measure from the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee. But he also expects it to eventually clear that committee.
Sen. Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne, who is the incoming chairman of the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, said he wants to give industry time to present both the pros and cons of the governor's plan.
"I think we want to hear from everybody, and I have no pre-condition to vote yes or no," he said. "We want to see the bill and see what it says and have a good discussion on it."
Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, who will serve on the committee, said he started reading the legislation Tuesday night.
While a lot of good people have worked on the governor's proposal, including Republican Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin, "I want to make sure we go through this line by line and hear from all the stakeholders," Hickey said. "I want to do something, if there are some economies of scale."
Sen. Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs, who also will be on the committee, said Hickey "is really taking it apart and reading it word by word. I am going to give it a fair assessment. I am going to read it all."
Hutchinson's proposal would be the most sweeping reorganization of state government since 1971, when Democratic Gov. Dale Bumpers led an effort to reduce the number of agencies from 60 to 13 under Act 38 of 1971.
A Section on 01/10/2019
Print Headline: Bills filed to reorganize, trim number of state agencies