Ethics charges, teacher bonuses debated at capitol; Governor concerned with action on teacher pay
It was a busy non-session day Thursday (July 21) at the Arkansas State capitol as the Senate stripped two of its members of their leadership posts and lawmakers attempted a controversial effort to find funding for teacher bonuses.
Sens. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, and Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, have been under ethics scrutiny for their roles in attempting to get a per diem payment for Clark, who did not attend a meeting for which he was seeking payment of $155.
A Senate ethics panel – which was put into motion after scandals that sent several lawmakers, former lawmakers, and lobbyists to prison late last decade – investigated the Clark and Johnson allegations brought by Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana. Johnson signed Clark into a Boys’ State meeting in June, even though Clark did not attend the meeting. A text exchange between the two men confirmed Clark’s absence, yet Johnson signed him in anyway.
The ethics committee recommended to the full Senate that Clark and Johnson be stripped of their committee leadership posts; banished from working on Boys State, Girls State and the Senate Ethics Committee; and prohibited from receiving per diem or mileage reimbursements for the rest of the year.
The two senators, who apologized for their actions, will also receive a letter of reprimand. On Thursday, the Senate voted to accept the recommendations from the ethics panel.
Clark was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and Johnson was vice-chair of several committees. You can read more on the proceedings from our content partner, KUAR FM-89 News, at this link.
Under mounting pressure from pro-teacher groups, state lawmakers spent the morning debating ways to provide one-time teacher bonuses of $5,000 and $2,500 from federal funds received under the American Rescue Plan. Arkansas lags behind several neighboring states with its minimum teacher salaries.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson supports using a portion of the state’s $1.6 billion surplus to provide $4,000 teacher pay increases to raise the minimum pay to $46,000, but Republican lawmakers have largely objected. Hutchinson said the lack of consensus led him to leave teacher pay increases off his call for an Aug. 8 special session.
Republican leaders said a legislative school adequacy study needs to be completed before the next regular session with recommendations for teacher and school staff salary increases. Democrats have been unified in supporting the governor to add the issue to the special session call.
On Thursday, members of the Arkansas Legislative Council voted to alter the spending authority for the state Department of Education, in effect, giving it permission to let school districts use $500 million from the American Rescue Plan for teacher and staff bonuses of $5,000 or $2,500.
While Republicans approved the move, Democrats objected saying the one-time bonus would not address the low pay issue. Later in the day, Gov. Hutchinson voiced concerns on the Legislative Council proposal.
“While I am pleased the Arkansas Legislative Council supports funding bonus pay for teachers, their action to rescind $500 million in spending authority for the Arkansas Department of Education is contrary to the Council’s statutory authority and contrary to the principles of separation of powers underlying the Arkansas Revenue Stabilization Act.
“I am disappointed by the Legislative Council’s vote to rescind its approval to give the Arkansas Department of Education authority to spend $500 million in American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund. Just as the General Assembly could not recall a bill from my desk that had already been signed into law, ALC may not undo the lawful appropriations under Act 199 through a parliamentary maneuver.
“Under the appropriation passed last month, the schools could use the funds for teacher bonuses and incentives. The big change now is that the schools must submit plans which must go back to the legislature for additional review.
“In other words, the local school district priorities may not be approved. I am concerned that teachers in some districts will get a bonus, but others may not. The creative approach by the committee today, while well-intentioned, is not the best approach to helping our teachers,” Hutchinson said.