Arkansas Legislative Council delays sending funds to 3 groups after lawmaker says his wife advised them on fundraising – Arkansas Online | Region & Cash

The Legislative Council on Thursday delayed action at Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s administration’s request to transfer and allocate $5 million in state-bound reserve funds to the Arkansas National Guard Foundation and $750,000 in state rainy-day funds in support of world services for the blind Spending authority to allow the Attorney General to donate $250,000 of proceeds from the trial settlement to the Sultana Historical Preservation Society.

The council’s decision came after Senator Mark Johnson, R-Ferndale, told lawmakers his wife Catherine Johnson is a registered fundraising consultant who advises the three groups on their fundraising and he previously filed a disclosure of his potential conflict of interest had the council meeting.

The council’s subcommittee on performance evaluation and spending review on Tuesday recommended the council stand by the Hutchinson administration’s three motions.

Secretary of State for Treasury and Administration, Larry Walther, wrote to the subcommittee asking the subcommittee to approve the transfer of $5 million in committed reserve funds to the Department of Defense for the Arkansas National Guard Foundation. The foundation’s mission is to provide charitable and educational support to members of the Arkansas National Guard and their families and survivors, as well as veterans and other nonprofit organizations that support veteran communities in Arkansas, Walther said.

Hutchinson wrote a letter asking the panel to approve the transfer of $750,000 in rainy day funds to the Arkansas Rehabilitation Services of the State Department of Commerce to assist World Services for the Blind in renovating their campus. The campus will be used as a group home for the blind, the governor wrote.

Walther wrote a letter asking the panel to grant the State Division of Heritage a new cash allocation to disburse $250,000 from the attorney general’s office to the Sultana Historical Preservation Society for the Sultana Disaster Museum in Marion.

Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, tabled a motion Thursday for the Legislative Council to approve the three requests for government funding, rather than allow the subcommittee to consider the requests next month. He said these groups are awaiting government funding.

But a subcommittee co-chair, Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Searcy, said the three requests for state funds were withheld by the subcommittee Tuesday because it was made aware that a lawmaker’s spouse was lobbying for the three bodies who do so would receive government funding as part of these applications.

He said he wanted more information about the nature of the relationship between the spouse and the groups and that he had not received all of that information.

Dismang subsequently clarified that Catherine Johnson is a fundraising attorney and not a lobbyist.

Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, said she can assure lawmakers that World Services for the Blind desperately needs the state’s support and is training people for skilled jobs in the state.

Dismang said Catherine Johnson’s fundraising relationship with the three entities requesting state funds has not been disclosed to the Legislative Council’s Subcommittee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review and it is important that the public know there is transparency.

It would be inappropriate for the council to vote on those three requests for state funding on Thursday because the three entities that would receive the state funding are not on site to testify to the council about their plans, he said.

But Senator Jason Rapert said many state legislators are aware of Catherine Johnson’s fundraising activities.

Dismang said he is not suggesting that the three entities seeking state funding, Sen. Mark Johnson or Catherine Johnson, have done anything improper.

“It’s about transparency,” he said.

Senate President Pro Tempore Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, said he agrees with Dismang’s plan for the subcommittee to review the three requests for state funding next month so lawmakers can do their due diligence and provide transparency. The house management had been informed, he said.

Lane Jean MP, R-Magnolia, questioned whether the requested state funds would be used to pay a fee to Catherine Johnson. Lowery then withdrew his request for the council to approve Thursday’s three requests for government funds.

Johnson said he has resigned on several occasions in the past, declining to participate in legislative discussions about legislation and disclosing a potential conflict of interest due to a family member’s work.

He said his wife is a fundraising consultant registered with the Secretary of State and receives a flat monthly fee and no bonus or commission.

“She’s not going to get any of that money herself,” Johnson said.

Johnson said he was not a member of the subcommittee on performance evaluation and spending review and on Thursday morning submitted his disclosure about his potential conflict of interest because he realized the council would consider those three requests for state funds.

As a further measure, the Legislative Council approved several other requests for one-off government resources, including the transfer of:

• $15 million in earmarked funds for the state Department of Veterans Affairs to match federal funds to build a new home for state veterans in Fayetteville. The $15 million represents 35% of the projected total cost of $42.8 million for the new Veterans Home, and the Department has applied to the US Department of Veterans Affairs for grant funding for the remaining 65% of the project cost, said Nathaniel Todd, Secretary of the State Department of Veterans Affairs.

• $10 million in earmarked reserve funds for the state Department of Public Safety to provide grants to law enforcement agencies statewide through the Public Safety Equipment Grants Program.

• $3 million in earmarked reserve funds for the State Department of Human Services’ Division of Aging, Adult and Behavioral Services to support senior centers in their mission to provide a comprehensive and coordinated system of services for people ages 60 and older. The funds will be used to cover the operating costs of the senior centers in recognition of the hardship the ongoing public health emergency is putting on their revenues, department secretary Cindy Gillespie said.

• $1.5 million in earmarked reserve funds to the State Economic Development Commission for a grant to the Museum of Discovery for renovation after the February 2021 flood.

• $1 million in earmarked reserve funds to the State Department of Treasury and Administration to disburse funds to the Hope Cancer Resource Center in Northwest Arkansas to establish a foundation to support cancer support services for patients and families in Benton, Carroll, Madison and Washington counties .

• $1 million in earmarked reserve funds to the State Economic Development Commission for a grant to the Arkansas Alliance of Boys and Girls Clubs for organizational projects.

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