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Governor's liaisons funding held up for 2nd day

Communication subpar, critic says by Michael R. Wickline | January 27, 2021 at 7:01 a.m.
Rep. Jim Dotson, R-Bentonville, presents his bill, HB1113, Tuesday Jan. 26, 2021 during a House Education Committee meeting at the state Capitol in Little Rock. The bill would allow unutilized land donated to through the Urban Homestead Act to be used for schools. More photos at arkansasonline.com/127leg/.

For the second consecutive day, a proposed $226,250 appropriation for Gov. Asa Hutchinson's legislative liaisons failed Tuesday to clear the Arkansas Senate at the behest of a senator, who said he wants the governor's office to take steps to improve its communications with lawmakers.

Hutchinson later defended his staff's efforts in communicating with state lawmakers on a wide range of matters.

The Senate's 23-8 vote for Senate Bill 133 by the Joint Budget Committee fell four votes short of the 27 required for approval in the 35-member Senate. On Monday, the Senate's 21-8 vote for SB133 was six votes short of the number required.

[RELATED: See complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature at arkansasonline.com/legislature]

For two consecutive days, Sen. Trent Garner, R-El Dorado, has urged the Senate to hold on to the appropriation bill for fiscal 2021, which ends June 30.

The bill would authorize the governor to employ one lead legislative liaison, who is entitled to per diem amounts of up to $250 for each day the General Assembly is in regular session, and would authorize the governor to employ nine legislative liaisons, who are entitled to per diem amounts of up to $200 a day during the session. These liaisons "shall serve without pay" under the bill.

Hutchinson said Tuesday night, "there is no one filling those positions at the present time," and the appropriations bill is designed to give extra help authorization.

Garner, who has been an outspoken critic of the Republican governor, said Tuesday in an interview, "I think we should hold [the appropriation] for as long as possible until there is substantive changes to the relationship that the executive branch liaisons have with the Legislature.

"I am sure certain members get privileges that others don't, but so far I have heard from multiple members that the handling of issues, especially dealing with covid-19 for the last year, has been unacceptable and subpar," Garner said.

Asked what steps the governor's office needs to take to get the bill through the Senate, Garner said the governor's office needs to establish "good lines of communication" with state lawmakers and seek "input before decisions are made that we don't find out about [afterward], especially the governor's expansive emergency powers, and having concerns in our district be heard more directly."

"My legislative staff works very hard in communication with the members on a whole host of matters from case work, appointments, legislation, vaccine distribution and redistricting matters," the governor said Tuesday night.

"It is regrettable that Sen. Garner is not satisfied," the governor said in a written statement.

"As I said in my State of the State address [on Jan. 12], my door is always open," Hutchinson said. "No legislator has been denied any access, and Sen. Garner is always welcome to visit directly with me."

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, who is a co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, said communication between the executive and legislative branches is important, but "you've got to be sympathetic to the governor.

"He's been having to handle a lot in trying to manage the covid situation and the personalities of the Legislature and everything else, [and] it can be really, really difficult, I understand that," he said.

"I think [with] this particular appropriation that we now voted on twice, a lot of that could be satisfied with some communication," said Dismang, who served as the Senate president pro tempore from November 2014-19.

"I know there has been some outreach, and that's not saying the governor needs to call and ask them to vote for the bill, but ask and have a conversation about what concerns and questions that they may have in general," he said. "I think that's really the holdup we have with getting the particular appropriation passed."

Asked whether he expects to get 27 votes in the Senate to approve the bill this week, Dismang said, "that is largely dependent on the governor's communication with the members.

"It's a public vote, and there is a good list to work from on who needs to be contacted," he said.

Sixteen Republicans and all seven Democrats voted for the bill Tuesday.

Besides Garner, the eight senators who voted against SB133 on Tuesday were Bob Ballinger, R-Ozark; Charles Beckham, R-McNeil; Ron Caldwell, R-Wynne; Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale; Bill Sample, R-Hot Springs; Gary Stubblefield, R-Branch; and Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro.

Four senators were recorded as not voting on the bill Tuesday. They were Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers; Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale; Breanne Davis, R-Russellville; and Terry Rice, R-Waldron.

Ballinger, Clark, Rice, Stubblefield and Sullivan are among 18 lawmakers named as plaintiffs in a lawsuit alleging that Hutchinson's response to the covid-19 pandemic exceeds his authority. Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, also is listed as a plaintiff. He voted for SB133 Tuesday.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Wendell Griffen dismissed the lawsuit in October. The ruling has been appealed to the state Supreme Court.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said in an interview that the perception is the governor's office doesn't relay information enough to the legislative branch, and "some of the members are making that statement."

He said he hasn't asked senators to vote for or against SB133.

"It is up to the governor's office to call the legislators and work their legislation," Hickey said.

Sen. Larry Teague, D-Nashville, who is a former co-chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, said, "I don't think Asa's people do a good job of working legislators," though he expects the dispute over SB133 to settle itself at some point.

Some lawmakers' once-private grumblings about Hutchinson's office are increasingly being aired publicly as Hutchinson starts his seventh year as governor.

Hutchinson has been governor since 2015 and previously served stints as a 3rd District congressman, federal Homeland Security undersecretary, head of the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration and U.S. attorney.

Hutchinson's predecessor as governor, Democrat Mike Beebe, served from 2007-15 and before that served four years as the state's attorney general and 20 years as a state senator.

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