Thursday, June 19, 2014

A special session: Maybe. And some questions about this group pushing for change in broadband law

Posted By on Thu, Jun 19, 2014 at 3:01 PM

Roby Brock at Talk Business talks with Gov. Mike Beebe about a special session. It's all a big maybe and the shape of legislation that could be introduced is far from clear.

Beebe again says he'll issue no call for a special session without clear evidence that whatever legislation is introduced has sufficient support to pass. He says he likes a bill he's seen circulating on teacher insurance, but then he notes resistance to redirecting general education support from other school district needs to insurance; resistance to tossing part-time employees off the plan, and resistance to dropping spousal coverage in many cases. So what does he support? I have exactly that question pending with the governor's office.

By the way: No agency of state government that I can find has done a study of how much money could supposedly be gained by stealing school district federal payroll tax savings generated by employee insurance contributions. Estimates are coming from sponsors of the legislation via an outside consultant.A critical question is district-by-district cost and the fairness of the takeback from each.

UPDATE: Sen. David Sanders tells me the state takeback is limited to the benefit from the amount each school district receives from the state per employee, not from any benefits gets from its only contributions. The net savings on this would be about $4.5 million he said. That's better than a takeback that took school district-generated savings, but it's still a loss of educational support any way you slice it.

Also: charter schols with members in the insurance system will also have to pay.

The governor's office said it prefers legislation that puts control of the decisions in the hands of the employee benefit division that oversees the insurance plans, rather than writing it into law. It says it wants the changes as fair as possible and done in a way not to harm the state's financial commitment under the Lakeview court ruling.

On other topics:

* LOTTERY RESTRICTIONS: Maybe. Again this depends on consensus that the legislature should limit expansion of lottery sales into video games.

* PRISONS: Maybe. If a session is called, Beebe says there's a way to free some money to open more prison and jail beds and reimburse counties for holding state prisoners. If no session, counties remain screwed. The source of this money remains unclear.

Will there be a special session for prisons if a deal can't be done on insurance. Spokesman Matt DeCample said that wasn't yet clear. He said the administration is confident that there's sufficient surplus in the central services fund, built by off-the-top revenue collections, to support a $6 million annual addition to prison and county jail costs.

* STATE BROADBAND SYSTEM: Maybe not. Beebe says the issue of repealing a state law to allow the state to operate a broadband system for public schools isn't ripe for a special session. It's one of the fiercest lobbying fights in memory. On one side are phone companies anxious to keep the state out of their business. On the other side is a powerful combine of private interests working for a state network. Can the state do the job? Are telephone companies profiteering? Is a state network just a way to offload the cost of an existing state broadband network, currently borne by colleges and universities, onto public schools? The arguments are many and the clear answers few.

I'll say this: It looks to me that FASTERArkansas, the 501c4 created out of a gubernatorial task force that is now working for a statewide broadband system is long overdue to play by the rules. It is lobbying for repeal of the law at the legislature, on the web and on social media. Its advocacy clearly requires registration, at least by my lights. As a 501c4, it is, regrettably, not required to reveal its sources of financial support. As a gesture of good faith, it should do so. The phone companies and their hired lobbyists make no bones about where they are coming from.

FASTERArkansas seems to contend it isn't lobbying. Said spokeswoman Elsa Becker, when I asked why they had no lobbying registration on file:

We as a campaign are encouraging grassroots advocacy. We are providing citizens with information on how they can advocate for positions that will increase access to high-speed internet for all Arkansas school children and improve both education and economic development in the state of Arkansas.

Yes, here's some of their grassroots advocacy to urge a law change on Twitter.

click to enlarge faster.png

If this isn't lobbying — or if FASTERArkansas is somehow exempt from disclosure that others must make — the ethics law needs changing.

I've said before that I started this debate generally in favor of letting the state set up its own network. I'm influenced further in that direction by opposition from some rural telephone companies with questionable service that have long dined out on legislative favoritism through careful currying of the right legislators.

But ... I know lobbying when I see it. And financial transparency is always better than secrecy. What's to hide?
There's avoidance of transparency in this prepared statement I was given on FASTERArkansas's work, along with some fair points.

FASTERArkansas is an established 501(c)4 nonprofit organization with the goal to educate and advocate for reliable, faster, accessible high-speed internet. As a 501c4 we follow all federal guidelines for reporting and fundraising.

We are acting as a non-governmental tool that is advocating for a change in current law (Act 1050). It is important to note that by advocating for a change in law we are simply advocating for K-12 public institutions to have the option to access current infastructure ARE-ON, changing the law does not force them to let go of existing service providers nor does it cut our private providers. We are a group of dedicated citizens, business leaders and educators ensuring all of our students receive the high-speed internet access they need for a 21st century education. The group was formed from business leaders and educators that adopted the recommendations from Gov. Beebe's appointed FASTERArkansas committee and the recommendations from the Arkansas Digital Learning Study. Jerry Jones, Chair of FASTERArkansas and Executive Vice President, Acxiom and Kathy Smith Vice Chair of FASTERArkansas and of Walton Enterprises are both supporters of our campaign. We have the AEA, ASTA, ASBA, EASTinitiative and AAEA in support of our efforts too.

Arkansas schools need better access to Internet content, video and courses for the upcoming school year based on new digital learning requirments, and many schools in the state do not have the capacity to meet those challenges.

Jones has testified in legislative committee on this issue. I am asked to believe this is not lobbying, but "encouraging grassroots advocacy"? Does compliance with federal law exempt an agency from state law? I don't think so.

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