The Bureau of Legislative Research is looking for a consultant to help study the state Department of Transportation.
Act 298 of 2019 requires that the Legislative Council, the body of lawmakers that meets between legislative sessions, hire a consultant to assist in studying the department's processes and functions, including procurement processes, projects, expenditures and appeals processes.
Act 298 also requires the Legislative Council to follow the study with recommendations on legislation. The council must file a final report by Dec. 1, 2020, with the governor and House and Senate leaders ahead of the 2021 regular session.
The council on Friday approved rules assigning the study and its duties under Act 298 to the council's Highway Commission Review and Advisory Subcommittee, co-chaired by Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, and Rep. Ron McNair, R-Alpena.
The council also authorized the bureau to issue a request for proposals today and open the proposals on June 14. The bureau anticipates that the Legislative Council will approve a contract with a consultant on Aug. 16, and the hiring will be based on a subcommittee recommendation. The contract would end Dec. 31, 2020, with an option for one renewal of up to six months.
Dismang said Friday that he doesn't have an estimate on the projected cost of hiring a consultant.
"I have not seen a similar study in another state," he said in an interview. "I know that is one of the things that [the bureau] is doing now is ... looking to see who has done similar work, but at this point I don't even have a ballpark of what the anticipated cost is. But the reality is we are talking about a multibillion-dollar agency, so the value is definitely going to be there."
The Department of Transportation has an annual budget of between $1.2 billion and $1.5 billion, said department spokesman Danny Straessle.
Dismang, who sponsored the bill that became Act 298, said the study is aimed at "making sure that we have got the best practices and techniques being utilized here in the state. ... The whole goal is to make sure that we're using every dollar that we can as wisely as possible."
Asked if he had his mind made up about these matters, Dismang replied, "Not at all.
"I am very open to a consultant's findings, whoever that may be," said Dismang, who has emerged as a critic of the state Department of Transportation in the past several years.
In an interview, McNair said the study will help provide increased oversight of the department.
"Some people feel like the Transportation Department does not have any oversight, being a separate entity and everything," he said. The agency is overseen by the five-member Highway Commission, created under Amendment 42 to the Arkansas Constitution.
"We are going to look, we're going to see what they are doing, best practices and that we are not wasting money," McNair said.
In the 2020 general election, voters will consider a proposed constitutional amendment to permanently extend the state's 0.5% sales tax for highways. The tax was first approved by voters in 2012 for a 10-year period. The House and Senate referred the proposal to voters.
That tax is projected by state officials to raise about $205 million more a year for highways and $44 million more a year for cities and counties.
"[Voters] are going to have a vote on a tax extension and they need to realize that there is going to be some oversight and it is being watched over and their money spent properly," McNair said.
Both Dismang and McNair voted for referring the 0.5% sales tax proposal to voters.
But they didn't vote the same way on a bill that in October imposes a wholesale sales tax on gas and diesel fuels to help raise more money for highways.
McNair voted for the bill that became Act 416. Dismang voted against it.
Act 416 also raises electric and hybrid vehicle fees and transfers at least $35 million a year in casino revenue and/or other state revenue to raise about $95 million a year for the Department of Transportation for highways. State officials project that the law also will raise about $13 million more a year each for cities and counties.
Act 416 and the proposed constitutional amendment are part of Hutchinson's $300 million highway funding plan.
Act 298 also requires the state's Internal Audit Section to conduct an annual project review and efficiency study of the Department of Transportation and to report the results to the Legislative Council no later than Oct. 1 of each year. The first report must be submitted by Oct. 1, 2021.
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