Legislative panel OKs Sanders’ request for $104,000 appropriation to help cover Profiri’s salary as special adviser

Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, asks a question during the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2023, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. .(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)
Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, asks a question during the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review on Tuesday, Jan. 23, 2023, at the state Capitol in Little Rock. .(Arkansas Democrat-Gazette/Thomas Metthe)

A legislative panel on Tuesday signed off on a request by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office for a $104,000 appropriation transfer to increase the extra help appropriation to cover the cost of former Department of Corrections’ Secretary Joe Profiri serving as a special adviser in the governor’s office in the fiscal year that ends June 30.

In a voice vote with a handful of audible dissenters, the Legislative Council’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee recommended the Legislative Council review the request from the governor’s office. The council is scheduled to meet Friday.

In other action, the panel recommended the Legislative Council approve the state Department of Human Services’ request for $13.4 million in American Rescue Plan funds for four hospitals in Bradley, Mississippi and Polk counties, and three requests for $11.6 million in state restricted reserve funds for projects.

Profiri assumed the special adviser position Jan. 12 at a salary of $201,699.89 a year, according to the state Department of Transformation and Shared Services.

Profiri’s salary was $210,000.13 as secretary of the state Department of Corrections, according to the Arkansas Transparency website. In January 2023, the Legislature’s Joint Budget Committee approved salaries for four department secretaries, including Profiri, that exceeded the maximum salary of $201,700 a year. Profiri formerly served as deputy director at the Arizona Department of Corrections.

Under Act 885 of 2023, the extra help appropriation in the governor’s office is $8,789 in fiscal 2024. The operations appropriation in the governor’s office totals $6 million in fiscal 2024.

During the subcommittee’s meeting Tuesday, Senate Democratic leader Greg Leding of Fayetteville asked state officials for a quick rundown of the job description for Profiri’s extra help position.

State Department of Finance and Administration Secretary Jim Hudson said the public statements from the governor’s office have been clear about Profiri’s duties.

“He will be advising the governor on matters involving corrections,” he said. “Obviously, we are all very familiar with the ongoing litigation, but the secretary does two things. He runs or she runs the department. They also provide advice to the governor, and there is a lot of needs in terms of criminal justice reform and corrections and so she needs that advice and he will be serving her providing that advice.”

But Leding said Profiri is not doing one of those duties now that he is no longer secretary of the state Department of Corrections, and is “essentially making the same amount of money annually.

“I just had some people reach out to ask are those duties comparable between advising the governor and running the agency as well,” he said.

In response, Hudson said “Secretary Profiri is a very, very experienced in corrections and [with] his career experience in corrections, it’s an appropriate salary for him,” and Sanders is comfortable with Profiri’s salary level.

Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, Scott Flippo, R-Mountain Home, and Leding are among a handful of lawmakers who dissented in their voice votes to recommending the Legislative Council approve the governor’s office request for the $104,000 appropriation transfer to increase the extra help appropriation to cover the cost of Profiri serving as a special adviser in the governor’s office in fiscal 2024.

Afterward, Hickey said in an interview that “I think the amount that being paid for that is excessive,” noting that Profiri is being paid more than any other employee in the governor’s office, including the chief of staff. The governor’s chief of staff, Gretchen Conger, is paid a salary of $160,000, according to the Arkansas Transparency website.

“On a larger basis, I am one of those who is sitting back and watching what’s going on between the [Board of] Corrections and the governor’s office, and I don’t agree with that, the way that has been handled,” he said.

On Jan. 10, the state Board of Corrections voted 5-2 to terminate Profiri, four weeks after suspending him and banning him from the Department of Corrections administrative building. The board and Profiri battled over opening certain prison beds.

After Profiri’s firing, Sanders announced she had hired him as a senior adviser in her office. At that time, the Republican governor sharply criticized the state Board of Corrections and said, “We firmly support Joe Profiri as Secretary of Corrections and are proud of the accomplishments we’ve achieved together. During ongoing litigation, Joe Profiri will be serving as a senior advisor to me in my office. I’m confident that Attorney General [Tim Griffin] will successfully defend the law in court.”

The Board of Corrections’ decision to terminate Profiri came after two months of wrangling between the board and Profiri, whom Chairman Benny Magness and other board members have accused of being insubordinate and uncommunicative.

Profiri is named, along with Sanders and the Department of Corrections, in a lawsuit filed by the Board of Corrections. The board aims in the suit to maintain authority to supervise and manage the corrections secretary, as well as the directors of the Department of Corrections’ Division of Correction and Division of Community Correction.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Patricia James has issued a preliminary injunction barring the enforcement of Act 185 of 2023 and portions of Act 659 of 2023, which the board contends weaken the board’s authority under Amendment 33 to the Arkansas Constitution. Act 185, sponsored by Sen. Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, would require the secretary of corrections to serve at the pleasure of the governor, and Act 659, sponsored by Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, would require directors of the Department of Corrections’ Divisions of Correction and Community Correction to serve at the pleasure of the secretary.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said Tuesday in an interview that he voted to review the governor’s office request for a $104,000 appropriation transfer to increase the extra help appropriation to cover the cost of Profiri serving as a special adviser in the governor’s office because “I do feel like we have some responsibility because he is in that position because of a law we passed” that the senator believes is constitutional.

Dismang said Profiri’s salary as a special adviser in the governor’s office is less than his salary was as the state Department of Corrections secretary, and “if you take into consideration the housing that is afforded through the Department of Corrections, it is significantly much less.”

“I don’t think what they asked for was unfair,” he said.

AMERICA RESCUE PLAN FUNDS

The legislative panel also recommended the Legislative Council approve the state Department of Human Services’ requests for $3.8 million in federal American Rescue Plan funds for Green River Medical Center, $3.4 million in federal funds for South Mississippi County Regional Medical Center, $3.4 million in federal funds for Bradley County Medical Center, and $2.7 million in federal funds for the Mena Regional Health System.

The Green River Medical Center is a 99-bed general hospital in Mississippi County operated by the Mississippi County Hospital System, a component unit of Mississippi County along with South Mississippi County Regional Medical Center, according to state Department of Finance and Administration consultant Alverez & Marsal Public Sector Services LLC.

The South Mississippi County Regional Medical Center is a 25-bed critical access hospital. The Bradley County Medical Center is a 33-bed critical access hospital in Bradley County. Mena Regional Health System is a 65-bed general hospital in Polk County.

RESTRICTED RESERVE FUNDS

The panel recommended the Legislative Council approve three requests for state restricted reserve funds.

The three requests include:

— The Department of Transformation and Shared Services’ request for $4.2 million to support the Geographic Information Systems Office’s participation in a federal project.

The project is designed to support high-resolution terrain data for 40 counties in western Arkansas equaling 28,041 square miles, Department of Transformation and Shared Services Secretary Leslie Fisken said in a letter dated Dec. 1 to the state Department of Finance and Administration Secretary Jim Hudson.

This western Arkansas project complements a previously planned eastern Arkansas project that is fully funded by the federal government, and the federal government is awarding the state a 50% cost share on the western part of the state, Fisken said. The federal government will pay the vendors directly and the state will reimburse the federal government 50% of the cost up to $4.2 million, she said.

— The Department of Public Safety’s request for $4.4 million to allow the Division of the Arkansas State Crime Lab to purchase land for the construction of a new state crime lab building.

Any funds not utilized for this purpose will be put toward future construction of the building, Department of Public Safety Secretary Mike Hagar said in a letter dated Dec. 11 to Hudson.

Karen Perry, chief financial officer for the state Department of Public Safety, said Tuesday “we are in negotiations” for the purchase of the land for a new state crime lab building and she expects most of the $4.4 million will go toward the land purchase.

— The state Department of Finance and Administration’s request for $3 million for a grant to Special Olympics to construct a new headquarters building in North Little Rock.

The building will provide facilities for offices, conference room and storage to allow for expansion of the athletic leadership program and expand opportunities, events and resources throughout the state, finance department Chief of Staff Alan McVey said in a letter dated Dec. 20 to Hudson.

McVey said the original headquarters for the Special Olympics was damaged by ice and snow that resulted in the flooding and damaging of the building structure. Dismang said Special Olympics is currently operating in a temporary space.

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