Thursday, May 19, 2016

Hutchinson legislation consolidates his power on History Commission, Mansion and state building leases

Posted By on Thu, May 19, 2016 at 6:56 AM

HOSTILE TAKEOVER: Gov. Asa Hutchinson has introduced legislation to ensure that neither he nor any future governor will have to worry about contrary ideas on Mansion operation from a regulatory commission.
  • HOSTILE TAKEOVER: Gov. Asa Hutchinson has introduced legislation to ensure that neither he nor any future governor will have to worry about contrary ideas on Mansion operation from a regulatory commission.

I wrote yesterday about historian objections
to Gov. Asa Hutchinson's proposal to neuter the Arkansas History Commission and put all its work under the control of a single person, flower shop owner Stacy Hurst, whose primary achievement to date as Heritage Department director has been to upend a sound architectural design for a new building by adding antebellum-evoking columns. Some lawn jockeys might also be in order given her unfortunate actions at the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center.

But anyway ....

Contrary to reporting elsewhere, the legislation itself WAS available yesterday. Still you could be forgiven for missing the details had you found the bills on the General Assembly website.

The governor's bill "to promote efficiency" in government is a monster — 105 pages long. It  abolishes or reworks a number of state agencies and commissions — some minor, some not.

The History Commission transfer to Heritage control is not minor. It makes the state historian answerable to the Heritage director, not the commission, which would meet only on call of the director. A provision for regular meetings is eliminated from the law. The meat of the transfer begins on Page 90 of the bill. Historians are up in arms.

I mentioned last night that the governor also has moved to neuter the Governor's Mansion Commission, previously viewed as custodian of the governor's residence. Past governors have had difficulties with the Commission — notably Mike Huckabee. The Hutchinsons have also apparently had some differences of decor opinions with the Commission, with its holdovers from the Beebe era. Asa and Susan are going to fix that, starting on page 67 of the bill.

Hutchinson adds a member to the eight-member commission and makes the Heritage director (Stacy Hurst) an ex officio voting member. He ends the practice of a commission chair holding that position until the end of a term. The sitting governor makes the call on the chair. The bill takes procedural rule-making authority away from the commission.

The real rub is that the bill strips this power from the commission:

To make rules and regulations governing any improvements, repairs, replacements, or reconstruction of the mansion, its appurtenant buildings, its grounds, and its contents, including furniture and fixtures;
First Lady wants to put a big shiny Buddha out front or some Sears tool sheds out back? You go, girl. Commission can't say a dang thing.

The Commission no longer will have a say in what gifts may be accepted for the mansion. The governor will make that call.

Understand there's a solid argument for a long view of control of the historic structure by a group with an institutional view of the historic property, rather than the passing fancy of a current occupant who might badly want a cement pond out back.

There's lots more in this bill, notably, on Page 48, the abolition of the gubernatorially appointed Building Authority Council to oversee the state's leasing of property for office buildings and other uses. This can be — and often was — a political playpen to favor the politically connected. (Think offices all over Arkansas leased to friends, relatives and significant others of legislators.) But consolidation of these powers in an office in the gubernatorial controlled Department of Finance and Administration is not a safeguard against such politics, only a concentration of the politics in one person. That MIGHT not be true if building leasing was subject to rigorous bidding processes, but it isn't.

This is a lot of detailed work to handle in only three days. Many consequences could be overlooked. Which, of course, is the idea.

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