Thursday, January 20, 2011

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – A few state agencies and commissions, as well as state-supported universities, operate with independence from legislative oversight because their powers are granted to them in the state Constitution.

That may change after the 2011 session.

If Senate Joint Resolution 2 is adopted, and if it is approved by Arkansas voters, it would make those commissions and institutions more accountable to the legislature.

SJR 2 would refer a proposed constitutional amendment to the general election ballot of November 2012. If voters approve it the Highway Commission, the Game and Fish Commission, the Lottery Commission and higher education institutions would be more accountable to legislators and therefore to voters.

The legislature appropriates money for the operating costs of those commissions and universities, and that is pretty much the extent to which the legislature has any control over their decision making. Universities can raise tuition, add degree programs and borrow money for construction without having to get approval from the legislature.

The Game and Fish Commission has more motor vehicles than employees. It has leased hunting areas to gas exploration companies, causing some to question how the drilling of gas wells is compatible with the Commission's duty to manage wildlife.

Some legislators are frustrated by Highway Commission decisions on the location of new roads and improvements to existing highways. SJR 2 would have the legislature set the duties of the director of the Highway and Transportation Department. Now, the director's duties are set by the Highway Commission.

Some lawmakers have been frustrated when the boards of universities raise tuition and fees every year and then fault the legislature for failing to dedicate sufficient tax revenue to their institutions.

Much of the frustration with the independent commissions and universities is based on the fact that they are insulated from public opinion. When legislators face re-election they must explain their decision making to voters, but constitutionally independent agencies spend billions of dollars in tax revenue and don't have to answer to the general public.

Because of its potential to make far-reaching changes to the way powerful state agencies operate, supporters of SJR 2 expect a spirited debate on the measure. It has been referred to the Senate Committee on State Agencies and Governmental Affairs.

The State Agencies Committee began work last week on what will likely be a politically sensitive issue - drawing new boundaries for Congressional districts. Arkansas sends four U.S. Representatives, also known as Congressmen, to Washington, D.C. Boundaries are redrawn after every census to reflect population shifts.

The legislature will use numbers from the 2010 census to draw new Congressional districts of equal population. Congressmen are intensely interested in how the new map will look and are not bashful about making their own suggestions.

In other legislative news the Joint Budget Committee voted to not give any pay raises to judges and prosecutors. The committee had previously decided that legislators and constitutional officers would not get a raise next year. Several lawmakers said that highly-paid and perhaps all state employees may have to forego a raise next year.

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