Last Friday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed a number of bills into law after a short special session that was largely defined by efforts to move the state primary elections from May to March and the authorization of a bond issue related to an economic development project in Camden, Arkansas involving Lockheed Martin.
But one measure that did not draw as much focus could end up having a significant impact on the efficiency of our state government. Matching bills (SB 1 and HB 1001) by Senator Jim Hendren (R-Gravette) and Rep. David Branscum (R-Marshall) were signed into law by the Governor last week after the legislature voted to merge several state agencies. The merger, which is estimated to save about $10 million over five years, includes moving the Department of Rural Services and the Arkansas Science and Technology Authority under the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, the Arkansas Building Authority under the Department of Finance and Administration, the Division of Land Survey under the Arkansas Geographical Information Office.
Prior to the vote, I sat down with one of the issues biggest champions, State Senator Eddie Joe Williams (R-Cabot), to discuss the effort and to understand what belies his interest in the merging of state agencies. When asked to expound upon the impetus of creating the changes, he indicated that he viewed state government as a business and referred to his local level elected service in Cabot.
“When I became Mayor of Cabot, I was about $1 million in debt… I said, ‘How do I do this?’ So I put together a process and we looked at every function the city performed. It took me weeks of every day interviewing. It’s all we did for the first three or four months I was in office. Then we began to realize that some of the functions weren’t necessary and, if they were necessary, could I consolidate them with somebody else? Could I do it with information technology? I found out I could save $1 million a year on a small budget.”
From here, Williams noted that he was able to put almost $4 million in the bank in about four years for the city of Cabot.
While one could argue that there’s a tremendous difference between assessing the efficiency of a city and an entire state, the Senator stood firm in his belief that some agencies may contain employees that are capable of doing the same job but for more than one agency.
“By looking internally, you begin to see opportunities to merge,” said Williams. “I would envision it – just to simplify – a large spreadsheet where you had all the agencies and every job there is. Then you’d look at each agency and you’ll start seeing some of those agencies have a budget person, an HR person, has a receptionist, an executive assistant, a director, a deputy director. So you go all the way across and they’ve got eight employees. You start grouping those and you start to see the opportunity. It’s tax dollars.”
While Williams was unable to answer whether or not this effort would lead to job loss, he stated that he “wished we had someone in state government who would try to figure that out, but it’s obvious we don’t do it. Bureaucrats are just looking for the next paycheck. We are elected as politicians to preserve tax dollars and to get the most out of it that we can.”
According to the governor, no layoffs will be necessary from the mergers that occurred in the special session, but more than 20 positions will eventually be eliminated as personnel shifts. The finance department has stated that 35 positions at the four agencies included in the shift are being evaluated for elimination. Sixteen of these positions are vacant.
Whether you think government is too big, too small or just right, get ready for a renewed look at agency consolidation in Arkansas. The special session was a test-run for a larger experiment in “right-sizing” state government.
You’ll be able to catch more of my conversation with Sen. Williams in our Thursday TB&P podcast.