Jeremy Hutchinson: People want accountability on spending

Me and Archie Manning at the Sugar Bowl. He insisted on taking this photo with me so who am I to turn down a football legend?

Saline Courier Sunday Paper front page Jan 23, 2011


If Saline County’s state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson has his way, the state Highway Commission, the Game and Fish Commission, the Lottery Commission and institutions of higher education would lose their autonomy under a proposed constitutional amendment Hutchinson filed this week.
Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, who recently took office, represents portions of Saline and Pulaski counties.
Under his proposal, budgets  for these agencies would be overseen and set by the Legislature for the first time.
The resolution would amend parts of the state constitution that allow these three state agencies and the state’s colleges and universities to operate independently.
“I think people want accountability, and right now these four institutions are not as accountable,” Hutchinson said.
“I don’t think there is graft or corruption, but they don’t have the accountability like the Department of Finance and Administration has or the Department of Human Services, and they’re spending a lot of taxpayers’ dollars, particularly the Highway Department,” he said.
Hutchinson’s proposal was referred to the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee.
The Legislature can refer up to three proposed constitutional amendments to the general election every two years, Hutchinson noted.
In Hutchinson’s proposal, the Highway Commission, created by Amendment 42, the Game and Fish Commission, created by Amendment 35, and institutions of higher education, which were granted a certain amount of independence under Amendment 33, would no longer be independent of the Legislature and would be subject to legislative appropriations.
The proposal also would amend Amendment 87, which authorized the state lottery, to say that lottery proceeds can be appropriated by the General Assembly.
The amendment currently prohibits the Legislature from controlling lottery funds.
Hutchinson contends that recent controversies within the Lottery Commission and Game and Fish Commission illustrate the need for legislative and executive branch oversight.
The state Lottery Commission was found in an audit to have operated with undocumented expenses, without checking employee backgrounds and without meeting accepted standards on awarding large vendor contracts.
The Game and Fish Commission recently considered exempting itself from the state Freedom of Information Act. It eventually backed off.
Hutchinson said his main interest, however, is the Highway Department.
“I think the Highway Department has been shortchanging Saline County and other parts of the state for 50 years,” Hutchinson said.
“I think they need to redraw the district lines to allow equal funding,” he said. “The Legislature currently has no say in the matter. My proposal would give the Legislature, who are the people’s representatives, the authority to rectify inequities.
According to Hutchinson, the Highway Department “spends more tax money that any department, except for the Department of Education, yet  there’s very little accountability or oversight.”
“As for the Game and Fish  Commission and Higher Ed being under the Legislature, I really don’t have a burning issue with them, but I think what’s fair is fair,” he said.
“In particular the Highway Department should have legislative oversight,”  he contended. “We learned during the last election that people want accountability and with our form of government, the people get that through their elected representatives.
“Currently the elected representatives can’t do anything about these agencies,” he said. “If we bring these others under legislative control, they can at least be controlled by voting the legislators out.”
Hutchinson said he believes the bill will pass “if it’s referred out” (for a public vote).
“The Legislature refers three constitutional revisions every session. If this gets referred out, it will pass. I think the people are crying out for more accountability.”
Hutchinson said he has had “very good response” in conversations with other legislators. “There may be amendments that may be filed and we may need to remove an agency or two that the Legislature doesn’t support.”
In regard to his proposal, Hutchinson noted that the “Highway Department certainly doesn’t like it.”
“That was to be expected,” he said. “I haven’t heard from Higher Ed. While I’m concerned about tuition increases, I have no particular issue with them. I don’t see anything they’re doing that’s particularly offensive.”
Hutchinson emphasized that his proposal has “just been introduced. The resolution won’t be heard until the very end of the session.”
“The Joint State Agencies Committee will meet and refer them out, and we’re just now getting feedback. We’ll tweak the legislation and a hearing will probably be held in March. There will be a lot of input and we’ll try to address needs and concerns as they arrive, but obviously still hold people accountable.”
Efforts to obtain a reaction to Hutchinson’s proposal from the state Highway Department were unsuccessful Friday.
Ralph Hall, assistant to Director Dan Flowers, referred comments to Randy Ort, the agency’s public affairs officer. Ort did not return phone calls in time to be included in this report.
Matt DeCample, spokesman for Gov. Mike Beebe, said earlier this week that the governor “is just now starting to review the language of the proposal,” but is strongly opposed to any changes to Amendment 33.
Beebe supports the independence of colleges and universities, DeCample said.
Rep. Barry Hyde, D-North Little Rock, a co-chairman of the legislative Lottery Oversight Committee, reportedly said he would oppose changing the lottery amendment. He said that when lawmakers were setting up the lottery’s structure, lottery officials in other states strongly recommended that the program be insulated from politics as much as possible.
“To put it under the direct month-to-month control of the Legislature would open the door to all kinds of political shenanigans,” Hyde said.
Hyde said he worries about the future of the lottery, which generated more than $100 million for college scholarships in its first year. – Jeremy Hutchinson Announces for he will run as a Republican for Arkansas State Senate district 22 (Video from last year)

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