Governor’s request for $5 million for military support group delayed

The Legislative Council on Thursday delayed action on requests from Governor Asa Hutchinson’s administration to transfer $5 million in restricted state reserve funds to the Arkansas National Guard Foundation and $750,000 in rainy state funds to support World Services for the Blind, and to grant spending authority to allow the Attorney General to donate $250,000 in proceeds from the lawsuit settlement to the Sultana Historical Preservation Society.

The council’s decision came after Senator Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, told lawmakers that his wife, Catherine Johnson, is a registered fundraising consultant who advises the three groups on their fundraising, and he has filed a disclosure of his potential conflict of interest prior to the board meeting.

On Tuesday, the council’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee recommended that the council retain all three of the Hutchinson administration’s demands.

State Department Secretary of Finance and Administration Larry Walther asked the subcommittee in a letter to approve the transfer of $5 million in restricted reserve funds to the US State Department. army for the Arkansas National Guard Foundation. The mission of the foundation is to provide charitable and educational support to members of the Arkansas National Guard and their dependents and survivors, as well as veterans and other charitable organizations that support veteran communities. of Arkansas, Walther said.

Hutchinson asked the panel in a letter to approve the transfer of $750,000 in rainy day funds to Arkansas Rehabilitation Services from the State Department of Commerce to help World Services for the Blind renovate its campus. The campus will be used as a group home for the blind, the governor wrote.

Walther asked the panel in a letter to grant a new cash credit to the State Heritage Division to disburse $250,000 from the Attorney General’s office to the Sultana Historical Preservation Society for the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion.

Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, on Thursday moved the Legislative Council to approve all three requests for state funding rather than have the subcommittee consider the requests next month. He said these groups are waiting to receive state funding.

But a co-chair of the subcommittee, Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said the three requests for public funds were upheld by the subcommittee on Tuesday because it was brought to its attention that a spouse of a legislator had lobbied for the three entities that would do so. receive state funding in connection with these applications.

He said he wanted more information about the nature of the relationship between the spouse and the bands, and he did not receive all of that information.

Dismang later clarified that Catherine Johnson is a fundraising consultant and not a lobbyist.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said she can assure lawmakers that World Services for the Blind is in desperate need of state assistance and is training people for skilled jobs in the state.

Dismang said Catherine Johnson’s fundraising relationship with the three entities seeking public funds was not disclosed to the Legislative Council’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review Subcommittee, and that t is important that the public knows that there is transparency.

It would be inappropriate for the board to vote Thursday on these three requests for state funding because the three entities that would get the state funding are not on hand to testify before the board about their plans, he said. declared.

But Senator Jason Rapert said many state lawmakers were aware of Catherine Johnson’s fundraising activities.

Dismang said he was not suggesting that the three entities seeking state funding, Senator Mark Johnson or Catherine Johnson, did anything improper.

“It’s about transparency,” he said.

Senate Pro Tempore Chairman Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said he agrees with Dismang’s plan for the subcommittee to consider the three state funding requests next month to allow legislators to exercise due diligence and ensure transparency. The House leadership has been notified, he said.

Rep. Lane Jean, R-Magnolia, asked if any of the requested public funds would be used to pay fees to Catherine Johnson. Lowery later withdrew his motion asking the board to approve the three requests for public funds on Thursday.

Johnson said he recused himself and refused to participate in legislative discussions on the legislation on several occasions in the past and revealed a potential conflict of interest due to the work of a family member.

He said his wife is a registered fundraising consultant with the Secretary of State’s office and receives a monthly fee, not a bonus or commission.

“She won’t get any of that money herself,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he was not a member of the performance evaluation and expense review subcommittee and he filed his disclosure about his potential conflict of interest Thursday morning because he learned that the board would consider these three requests for public funds.

In another action, the Legislative Council approved several other requests for one-time public funds, including the transfer of:

– $15 million in restricted reserve funds to the state Department of Veterans Affairs to match federal funds earmarked for the construction of a new state veterans home in Fayetteville. The $15 million represents 35% of the total projected $42.8 million cost for the new veterans home, and the department has applied to the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs for a grant for the remaining 65% of the project cost, said Nathaniel Todd. , secretary of the state department of veterans affairs.

— $10 million in restricted reserve funds to the State Department of Public Safety to provide grants to law enforcement entities statewide through the State Department of Public Safety’s Equipment Grant Program public security.

– $3 million in restricted reserve funds to the Division of Aging, Adult and Behavioral Services of the State Department of Human Services to assist senior centers in their mission to provide a system of services complete and coordinated for people aged 60 and over. The funds will be used to cover the operating costs of senior centers, recognizing the challenges the ongoing public health emergency has placed on their revenues, department secretary Cindy Gillespie said.

– $1.5 million in restricted reserve funds to the State Economic Development Commission for a grant to the Museum of Discovery for renovation after the February 2021 floods.

– $1 million in restricted reserve funds to the State Department of Finance and Administration to provide funds to the Hope Cancer Resource Center in Northwest Arkansas to create an endowment to assist patients and their families in Benton, Carroll, Madison, and Washington counties.

$1 million in restricted reserve funds to the State Economic Development Commission for a grant to the Arkansas Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs for organizational projects.

Virginia S. Braud