A relatively routine Arkansas Legislative Council meeting was made much more interesting today when Rep. James McLean, D-Batesville, raised some loud concerns over a couple of upcoming committee meetings in Fayetteville. The Arkansas Legislative Council Higher Education Subcommittee and the Senate State Agencies Committee both plan to meet at the Washington County Sheriff’s Office in Fayetteville on Friday afternoon on November 4 and Saturday morning on November 5, the same day that Arkansas plays South Carolina in Fayetteville.
"When I came into the legislature three years ago, these meetings were routine, but I thought we had decided to end this practice," McLean told me after the meeting. "It is not right to have a committee meeting in Fayetteville on the morning of a Razorback game…This sort of thing is the reason people don’t trust the legislature."
McLean said he had not spoken to the committee chairmen who had scheduled the meetings and was not sure of the agenda, but said he hopes they decide to cancel at least the Saturday morning meeting. Both meetings are chaired by Sen. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville. I reached out to Madison for comment, but have not yet heard back.
This is not the first time Madison has scheduled gameday meetings in Hogville. In fact, last year I wrote a column on this practice and interviewed Madison about the practice. From my column last year…
“Because the library closes early on Friday we decided to also meet Saturday morning since we might not get finished on Friday,” said Madison. “We are meeting early Saturday morning because there is a football game later in the day. I don’t go to football games, but a lot of people do and traffic can get pretty nasty. I am hoping a lot of legislators are planning to come to the game and will attend these important meetings.”
I am sure many legislators will take her up on this deal. Legislators will be reimbursed a per diem of $116 per day plus reimbursement for mileage. To sweeten the deal, if they attend both the scheduled meeting on Friday and Saturday morning, they get double the per diem. They can make the trip to Northwest Arkansas, attend the meetings on Friday afternoon and Saturday morning, catch the game, and taxpayers will pay them $232 plus mileage.
This is certainly not a new practice. Last year, the Legislature held meetings in Northwest Arkansas on three separate football weekends. According to records from the Arkansas Bureau of Legislative Research, the total cost of having those meetings, including legislative reimbursements and staff travel, was just under $12,000. Legislators received, on average, about $300 for their weekend trip. The highest reimbursement in 2009 went to Sen. Gene Jeffress, D-Louann, who was reimbursed $915.10 to attend two committee meetings on Razorback weekends. The kicker — pun intended — is that he wasn’t a member of either committee. That’s not against legislative rules, but more than a little questionable.
The per day per diem rate this year is $123, meaning a legislator can receive $246 for attending the meeting plus mileage. Sen. Madison tells the AP that the reason for scheduling the meeting in Fayetteville is so that legislators attending the game will attend the meeting.
UPDATE – It is a noticable oddity that the Senate State Agencies is meeting without a joint meeting of the corresponding House Committee. This is not by accident. Apparently after the additional public scuriny on the Hogville meeting practice last year, the House informally decided this was not a good idea.
"The General Assembly should get out of the Capital City from time to time and engage the full population of the State that we all represent. In being consistent with the stated objectives of efficient use of members time and taxpayer dollars, two meeting per committee, within each of the four regions of the state, per calendar year, should be sufficient to accommodate this necessity," said Speaker Robert Moore in a memo sent to House Chairman in June.