By Nic Horton | The Arkansas Project
LITTLE ROCK — The Arkansas House’s State Agencies & Governmental Affairs Committee has been meeting frequently lately — very frequently.
The casual observer might see this as a good thing: “Oh look, they’re doing their jobs! They’re overseeing government agencies and rooting out waste, fraud and corruption!”
But perhaps just the opposite is true: The State Agencies Committee is convening way too often. Consider its 2012 calendar. According to the legislative website, that committee did not meet at all during the fiscal session earlier this year, which lasted from Feb.13 through March 9. It met Jan. 25 and 26. Since then, it has met 12 times, including Tuesday. This week, three more committee meetings are scheduled —Thursday, Friday and Saturday — with the Friday and Saturday meetings being held in Fayetteville. There is also a meeting scheduled for Aug. 30. The legislative website shows three more meetings planned in September. That’s a total of 21 meetings this year while the Legislature is not in session, and more meetings may be called for the last quarter of the year.
In contrast, the House Committee on Public Health, Welfare, and Labor has met eight times this year, which is much closer to the norm for state legislative committees.
Is Arkansas experiencing a crisis in its governmental agencies? What’s with the sudden spike in meetings? And why am I spending so much time going into this much detail?
The frequency of these meetings is important because every time a meeting is held, legislators can get an additional payment — at the expense of the taxpayers, of course.
Not only do legislators receive per diems, they also receive reimbursements for their mileage, which is why it is important to compare the frequency of meetings held during session, when legislators are already in town, and the frequency of meetings outside the session, which necessarily incur higher mileage costs. This also raises questions about why two of this week’s committee meetings are being held in the northwest corner of the state instead of centrally located Little Rock.
The committee is chaired by state Rep. Clark Hall, D-Marvell. Hall unsuccessfully ran for Congress earlier this year. During his campaign, his committee met only four times. Since his candidacy officially ended after the June 12 runoff, Hall has called and held at least 10 meetings, with eight more on the docket.
State Rep. Debbie Hobbs, R-Rogers, serves on the State Agencies Committee. She tells me that the number of meetings seems excessive, particularly when many members of the current committee are term-limited and on their way out of office at the end of this year:
“I’m not saying it’s without merit to have these meetings and learn about state agencies, but it is interesting that he is choosing to do this now when several members are term-limited and some days these are the only meetings scheduled. It’s a lot of money and time.”
Hobbs said the meetings are mostly informational and may include testimonies from various state agencies, such as the History Commission. This agenda that I pulled up at random from the House calendar is hardly chock-full of important government business. There is exactly one item of new business listed: “Presentation on State Parks,” by Greg Butts. Does this seem like a good reason to hand the taxpayers a bill of several thousand dollars?
If you want the State Agency Committee to learn about state agencies, why not do it at the first part of session when we don’t have a lot going on and people are in Little Rock already?
Seems like a more than reasonable suggestion to me, given the savings to taxpayers.
This entire charade once again highlights the need for real ethics reform in Arkansas — perhaps coupled with higher legislative salaries — to eliminate a wasteful and expensive reimbursement system that is pockmarked with petty corruption.