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The Arkansas General Assembly gathers for the 2024 Fiscal Session from Apr. 10 to May 9.

Arkansas lawmakers say 'no' to clearer state purchasing laws amid audit controversy

Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley (front center), explains to the Joint Budget Committee’s Special Language subcommittee why she believes the Legislature should add clarifying language to state purchasing laws on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. (Screenshot courtesy of Arkansas Legislature)
Arkansas Advocate
Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley (front center), explains to the Joint Budget Committee’s Special Language subcommittee why she believes the Legislature should add clarifying language to state purchasing laws on Wednesday, April 24, 2024. (Screenshot courtesy of Arkansas Legislature)

Arkansas lawmakers declined to vote Wednesday on proposed language in an appropriation bill that would have classified several executive branch offices as state “agencies” in light of a controversy over whether certain state purchasing laws apply to the governor’s office.

An audit report made public last week found potential violations of several laws in the $19,000 purchase of a lectern by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ office. Sanders’ staff has repeatedly said, with support from Attorney General Tim Griffin’s office, that the General Accounting and Budgetary Procedures Law does not apply to constitutional offices because they are not explicitly mentioned in the list of entities for which the statute regulates financial behavior.

Rep. Julie Mayberry, R-Hensley, sponsored the proposed statutory language and called it “just a clarification” of the existing GABPL rather than a change to the law. The GABPL currently requires the state to “maintain on a sound financial basis the state and all of its agencies, boards, commissions, departments, and institutions.”

The proposed amendment to the Department of Transformation and Shared Services appropriation bill would have added a phrase to the GAPBL after the word “agencies” — “including without limitation the Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Secretary of State, Treasurer of State, Attorney General, Commissioner of State Lands, and Auditor of State.”

The measure failed in the Joint Budget Committee’s Special Language subcommittee after no one made a motion to approve it.

“This is common-sense accounting,” Mayberry told the committee. “We’re asking them to save receipts. We’re asking them to make sure they’re getting the best bang for their buck. Isn’t that what we expect?”

Lawmakers authorized the audit in October after it became public knowledge that members of Sanders’ staff used a state-issued credit card to buy the lectern and a carrying case in June from a Virginia-based event design and management firm with political ties to Sanders. The Republican Party of Arkansas reimbursed the state three months later while Sanders’ office was under scrutiny for its use of public money.

Arkansas Legislative Audit found, among other things, that Sanders’ staff shredded a document that included details about the lectern necessary to properly record the purchase. Sanders’ staff told auditors this was done in error.

Sanders’ office also failed to notify TSS of the delivery, which prevented the purchase from being properly recorded as belonging to state government, according to the audit report.

Mayberry mentioned that several Arkansas elected officials — including Griffin, who was a member of Congress at the time — called for then-Lt. Gov. Mark Darr to resign in 2014 after an audit found several instances of financial mismanagement, including improper use of campaign and taxpayer funds and excessive use of a state-issued credit card.


Special Language co-chair Sen. Ben Gilmore, R-Crossett, asked Mayberry if the proposed amendment was constitutional. Mayberry said she believed so because the language was “exactly the way [the GABPL] has been interpreted in the past over and over again.”

Gilmore asked why Mayberry did not include more state agencies from the executive branch in the proposed amendment; Mayberry said some agencies do not receive legislative appropriations.

Senate President Pro Tempore Bart Hester, R-Cave Springs, asked Mayberry if she would consider the chambers of the Legislature state agencies since they are funded by appropriations.

Mayberry said including the House and Senate in the proposed amendment would give TSS power over the Legislature and breach the separation of powers between the legislative and executive branches of government.

Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said he disapproved of “singling out particular constitutional officers” and elevating TSS to a position “higher than the three branches of government.”

Former Gov. Asa Hutchinson and the Legislature created the department in 2019 with the purpose of streamlining government services.

In last week’s report, auditors took issue with Sanders’ office seeking reimbursement for the lectern from the state GOP instead of asking the state procurement director for an exemption from state purchasing and property disposal laws.

“There are parts [of state law] that I think we do need to discuss in regards to the governor’s office and other constitutional offices, particularly the disposal of assets, but I think it’s a pretty big discussion that’s a lot more expansive than what we can do here in Special Language,” Dismang said.

Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, who requested the audit of the lectern purchase in September, said he initially supported Mayberry’s amendment but had changed his mind.

“If we’re going to go down this road, I want to pursue it through the courts so that we can actually do that, because this changes the way that we do policy all over the state of Arkansas,” Hickey said.

In an interview, Mayberry said she had not been expecting the amendment to pass and does not plan to reintroduce it before the fiscal session ends, which legislative leaders said will be next week. She also said she hopes the Legislature takes up the issue in the 2025 regular session.

“I hope that what we talked about today leads to continued discussions so that we get it right,” she said.

Editor's Note: This story Arkansas lawmakers reject proposed language to clarify applicability of purchasing laws appeared first on Arkansas Advocate.

Tess Vrbin came to the Advocate from the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, where she reported on low-income housing and tenants' rights, and won awards for her coverage of 2021 flooding and tornado damage in rural Arkansas. She previously covered local government for The Commercial Dispatch in Mississippi and state government for the Columbia Daily Tribune in Missouri.
Arkansas Advocate intends to show how state government affects the lives of everyday Arkansans so they can make informed decisions about themselves, their families and their communities.