Thursday, February 10, 2011

Week In Review

State Capitol Week in Review

LITTLE ROCK – The Arkansas Financial Transparency Act, which mandates that state agency spending be posted on the Internet, has gained enough co-sponsors to guarantee its passage in the state Senate.

Also known as the "open checkbook" bill, Senate Bill 221 was favorably recommended by the State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee and is scheduled for a vote by the entire Senate.

Under the bill, state agencies would have to post on the Internet the salaries of all employees, as well as expenditure data that includes amounts paid under contracts with private companies that bid on state projects. The data would include which vendors are awarded the contracts, the amounts of the contracts and whether they are for commodities or professional services.

The disclosure requirements also would apply to the governor, attorney general, secretary of state, land commissioner, auditor, treasurer and lieutenant governor. It also would apply to all boards and commissions, judicial offices, the Lottery Commission and legislative offices.

State agencies shall make available on the Internet information about their bonded indebtedness, such as the original amount of principal borrowed, the interest rates charged and the source of revenue for repayment of the debt. They must cite the statute authorizing them to borrow money.

The expenditure data is scheduled to be online by July 1, 2012. The state Department of Finance and Administration will create and regularly update the website.

SB 221 has 25 Senate co-sponsors, which is more than enough to win approval in the 35-member Senate.
Also, the lieutenant governor has publicly expressed his strong support of the bill. Some senators have said the bill doesn't go far enough because it does not include state-supported colleges and universities, which every year receive hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenue. Higher education uses a different accounting system so it would be very expensive to put its expenditure data online. However, the bill's sponsor has said that he wants to include higher education under the bill's requirements in the future.

In other business, the Senate passed a pair of bills to improve dental care in rural areas where there are few if any dentists. SB 43 would allow physicians and nurses to apply a fluoride varnish to children's teeth. The sealants have proven to be an effective way to prevent cavities. SB 42 allows dental hygienists to clean teeth without the supervision of a dentist.

The House Transportation Committee has endorsed SB 154 to prohibit drivers from talking on cell phones in school zones during school hours and when going through construction zones. It has already passed the Senate, so its final hurdle is consideration by the entire House.

Both the Senate and the House have each passed ethics reform bills. They will impose a one year "cooling off" period after an elected official leaves office in which the former legislator cannot become a registered lobbyist.

Also, the ethics law will limit how much a legislator can be reimbursed for trips to out-of-state conferences. They can still either drive or fly to conferences but they will receive expense reimbursements only for the cheapest mode of travel.

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