Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge's office spent $969,587 in state funds on radio and television advertising in the fiscal year that ended Wednesday -- a reduction of 57% from the $2.26 million spent in the previous fiscal year -- according to records in the attorney general's office.
The Republican's office spending on radio and television ads in fiscal 2021 is the second-largest expenditure on these ads in any fiscal year in the past 14 years, lagging only the money spent in fiscal 2020, based on the office's records. Fiscal years end June 30.
Prior to fiscal 2020, the largest amount that the office spent on such ads since at least fiscal 2008 was $459,200 in fiscal 2014, when Democrat Dustin McDaniel was attorney general. That fiscal year started in July 2013; McDaniel withdrew from the governor's race in the middle of the previous fiscal year, in January 2013.
Starting in July 2020, Rutledge changed her office's ads to remove her name, image and voice to ensure that "the unfounded concerns of her political opponents" wouldn't stop her from carrying out the office's duties, Rutledge spokeswoman Amanda Priest said a year ago.
At that time, Priest declined to specify to whom she was referring as Rutledge's political opponents.
On July 1, 2020, Rutledge announced her bid for the Republican nomination for governor in 2022 and said at that time that her office's ad campaign in fiscal 2020 was "absolutely not" aimed at promoting her for governor. Rutledge and her aides have said the coronavirus pandemic led the office to increase its ad spending to bolster its outreach efforts.
Rutledge and former White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who is the daughter of former Gov. Mike Huckabee, are the two announced candidates for the Republican nomination for governor. In addition, there are four announced Democratic candidates, along with a Libertarian candidate.
The attorney general office's advertising expenses are paid out of the office's consumer education and enforcement fund, which is funded by money obtained from lawsuits won by the office.
NEW DISCLOSURE LAW
According to Sen. Kim Hammer, R-Benton, ad spending in Rutledge office's prompted conversations among state lawmakers that led to his bill, which was enacted in this year's regular session. The law will require certain disclosures on publicly funded ads using an image or voice of an elected official.
Rutledge said Wednesday in a written statement that "yes, we worked with Sen. Hammer on his legislation."
Under Hammer's Senate Bill 691, which is now Act 1043, all articles, statements or communications using the image or voice of an elected official appearing in any radio, television or any other electronic medium for the publication of which a consideration is paid or to be paid by federal, state or county taxpayer funds shall clearly contain the words paid advertisement, paid ad, paid for by, sponsored by or furnished by and the name of the state entity, county or constitutional office that paid for the ad.
Act 1043 also applies similar conditions to paid advertising in newspapers.
The law, which becomes effective July 28, won't apply to paid political advertising using campaign funds. Any resident can file a complaint with the Arkansas Ethics Commission against an elected official who violates this law.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson "signed the bill because it had overwhelming bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate," said Hutchinson spokeswoman Shealyn Sowers.
Sowers said she is unaware of any paid advertisement with the governor's voice or image.
DROP IN TV AD SPENDING
The attorney general's office's spending on television ads dropped from $2.o2 million in fiscal 2020 to $730,804 in fiscal 2021, while spending on radio ads inched up from $236,283 to $238,783, according to records the office provided last week to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Asked why the office spent less on TV ads a year ago, Rutledge said Wednesday, "The global pandemic was a historic year which required additional outreach to all 75 counties and reaching every corner of the state."
From price gouging to child abuse and opioid abuse, seven public-service announcements touched issues that many Arkansans deal with daily and, as a result, "our office was contacted approximately 150,000 times in 2020," she said in a written statement.
Prior to the airing of the public-service announcements, the office would receive 200-300 calls per week, Rutledge said.
After the announcements, "we receive 2,000-3,000 calls per week and our email traffic has increased four times," she said.
Asked if the governor's race factored in the spending on television ads, Rutledge replied, "No."
Asked if the pandemic played into that, she said the unprecedented pandemic created the opportunity for price gouging scammers on items like toilet paper, masks and hand sanitizer in places like Facebook marketplace and eBay.
"My office was able to respond to the over 100 percent influx of the calls and emails from 2019's numbers and directly address every single complaint through direct contact, mediation and education," Rutledge said.
Asked why radio ad spending remained roughly the same both years, she said the Rutledge Report's radio ads were started in 2015 as a way to reach Arkansans throughout the state to explain what the office has to offer to protect consumers.
"The plan for radio has strong outreach throughout the state, but there has always been an intention to include radio, television, digital and traditional print," she said. Until fiscal 2020, Rutledge's office didn't spend any money on TV advertising in a fiscal year, according to records.
FUTURE AD SPENDING
Asked how much the office plans to spend in fiscal 2022, Rutledge said, "We are reviewing the great need as evidenced by the response and plan public service announcements accordingly."
Her term as attorney general ends in January 2023.
The ad spending has drawn the attention of three announced candidates seeking to succeed her in next year's election.
Republican candidate Leon Jones Jr., a former Arkansas Fair Housing Commission director, said Thursday in a written statement, "I have no knowledge of how those spending decisions are made and I won't comment on that, but once elected I would look at a decrease in spending as there are many more free or reduced cost ways to get the message out."
Republican candidate Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin said Thursday, "One of my highest priorities as Lt. Governor has been spending taxpayer dollars wisely, which is why I reduced my office budget and the number of employees in my office.
"As Attorney General, I will continue to be a good steward of taxpayer dollars and find savings in the budget," he said in a written statement.
Democratic candidate Jesse Gibson said Thursday that public-service announcements from the attorney general's office about concrete and specific threats to consumers are important to properly inform the public.
"Likewise, announcements about the availability of important programs can certainly further the public good," he said in a written statement. "However, election season can sometimes change that dynamic. These issues are currently the subject of litigation involving the current Attorney General."
Gibson said a common-sense solution would be to limit those expenditures as elections draw near.
"It would foster a sense of trust with the people of Arkansas by insuring that their tax dollars were not being utilized for personal campaign purposes. It would also alleviate even the mere appearance of impropriety," Gibson said.
"I would certainly commit to such common sense solutions. As Attorney General, I will utilize the funds you reference for proper communications about consumer threats and helpful programs and not for any personal or electoral purposes."