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Attempt to limit Arkansas PBS spending authority fails

Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders named a new chair of the state Post-Prison Transfer Board (also known as the parole board) late Wednesday.
John Sykes
Arkansas Advocate
An attempt to limit the spending authority of Arkansas PBS failed in a legislative committee Thursday.

Arkansas lawmakers have voted down an attempt to limit the spending authority of the state’s public television network.

Members of the Joint Budget Committee spent nearly an hour Thursday debating whether or not to cut Arkansas PBS’ cash appropriation by 20%, from just under $9 million to just over $7 million. The broadcaster would have needed approval from the Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) Subcommittee of the Arkansas Legislative Council to spend beyond that amount. The agency’s entire budget totals just over $15 million.

The proposal was presented as an amendment to Arkansas PBS’ budget for the upcoming fiscal year. The amendment’s author, Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, said lawmakers should monitor the agency’s spending more closely given the results of a recent audit revealing questionable spending practices.

“We have oversight responsibility over these agencies, and when we look and see year-over-year they’re carrying a $4 million balance, then I think there’s some accountability that needs to be there. That’s our job,” Sullivan said.

Results of an audit released in November found Arkansas PBS routinely made purchases just under the $20,000 threshold needed to trigger the public bidding process. Lawmakers last year approved a new audit looking at purchasing practices at Arkansas PBS stemming as far back as 2021.

While Sullivan argued the move didn’t constitute a budget cut, Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said the move seemed unfair given it would restrict funds raised by Arkansas PBS through grants and donations.

“It seems to me that we have an agency here that supplements the funding that they receive from general revenue through their own grit, and that’s the type of behavior that we should encourage among state agencies,” Tucker said. “And here we are saying if you want to spend the money that you get on your own, you’re going to have to come kiss the ring and ask our permission every time.”

Sullivan responded, saying the legislature has the obligation to ensure any funding for state agencies is spent wisely, regardless of the source. Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said the proposal would unfairly single out Arkansas PBS, requiring them to get legislative approval to spend money they’d raised themselves.

“I believe we would’ve had a problem with [Arkansas] PBS whether they had findings or not, and I think those problems accrue from some people who are disgruntled, perhaps reasonably so,” Chesterfield said. “But I don’t want us to set a precedent whereby every time we do something to an agency we don’t like, we might treat them differently than we would from some other agency.”

Arkansas PBS CEO Courtney Pledger told lawmakers she’d interpreted the results of the audit to mean the broadcaster “might have” violated state procurement laws by attempting to circumvent the public bidding process. Pledger said the restrictions on funding proposed by Sullivan could have impacts on programming, as well as their administration of the statewide emergency alert system.

Sullivan’s proposal ultimately failed to pass the Joint Budget Committee on Thursday, with fewer than 15 members on both the House and Senate sides of the joint committee voting in favor of it.

Daniel Breen is News Director of Little Rock Public Radio.