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Open government under assault in Arkansas

By   /   March 20, 2015  /   No Comments

Photo by: Shutterstock

Photo by: Shutterstock

By Greg Kaza | Watchdog Opinion

Our state’s flagship daily, The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, reported yesterday that “more than two dozen proposed laws that would limit the state’s traditionally strong Freedom of Information Act” are under consideration by legislators.  “Among information that would no longer be available:  certain records of taxes collected … and audit records of public colleges and universities.”

Policymakers, instead of expanding open government during national Sunshine Week, are considering restrictions on citizens’ right-to-know in Arkansas.

That’s unfortunate because open government, i.e., a stronger FOIA has the potential to save Arkansas taxpayers millions of dollars.  That’s a case the our non-profit, Arkansas Policy Foundation, which examines fiscal issues, has advanced in the 21st century.

Here’s one current example: records we obtained from the state Department of Finance and Administration in January show outstanding tax liens number 178,612 and total $735,470,927, while taxes are raised and counties aren’t fully reimbursed for housing state inmates in county jails.

Dark-Money

The liens are for “any debt currently due the state for taxes,” a DFA report explains. Taxpayers have multiple opportunities to pay, may enter into an agreement or appeal, and receive notification if and when they pay.

DFA filed 70,525 liens in 2012-14, seeking $312,851,427, the records show.  Liens released in the same period totaled 131,292 but 178,612 remained outstanding with $735 million owed to the state, records show.

We sought the records after a review of other public records.

That’s correct: $735 million in uncollected tax liens in Arkansas where state outlays total $5.2 billion.  Citizens have that information because of FOIA.

The information was obtained with two simple, informal requests in January to the DFA, which provided two documents: one that did not list total uncollected tax liens, and one that did list the $735 million figure.

A formal, follow-up request under FOIA in March asked for “the written DFA record, criteria or procedure, if it exists, for determining whether an outstanding tax lien is collectible or uncollectible.”  A state official had suggested, privately, that collecting tax liens was “like getting blood out of a turnip.”

The DFA, in a March 10 response said it “does not have any records responsive to this request.”

Photo by: Shutterstock

Photo by: Shutterstock

In sum, $735 million in uncollected tax liens in Arkansas without any written record, criteria or procedure for determining whether or not they are collectible or uncollectible.  Again, public information thanks to FOIA.

The size of the problem–$735 million–has led to consequences for law-abiding Arkansans. Taxes increase, while some tax cuts are delayed.  Another consequence: more criminals on Arkansas streets.  The County Judges Association and the Arkansas Sheriffs’ Association criticized the state last year for delays in “payment of jail reimbursement and inadequate payments” to house “about 2,300 state inmates being held in county jails, a number “more than the largest state prison.”

Could addressing the problem solve these issues? The episode also begs the question: are the number and amount of liens high because Arkansas taxes are high on a per taxpayer basis?

We would not be discussing these issues without FOIA.

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