HEADS UP: Advance word was given to lobbyists and others of a coming government cash giveaway to businesses. They were ready to pounce when the time came, unbeknownst to legislature and others.

The Arkansas Legislative Council put Commerce Secretary Mike Preston through a lengthy series of questions about the Hutchinson administration’s handling of the Ready for Business aid program to help businesses cover the cost of reopening.

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The governor announced it at a news briefing that began at 1:30 p.m. April 29 without notice to or approval by the legislature. The website went online a day earlier than planned and the original $15 million was oversubscribed in minutes. This led to a series of meetings and votes by legislative leaders to eventually up the fund to $147 million.

Legislators weren’t mollified.

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They are still miffed at a lack of notice and authorization. They believe, correctly, that some insiders got essentially advance word of the program. They wonder if the money will be handed out fairly. Finally, Sen. Jimmy Hickey moved that the matter be handed over to legislative audit for a continued review of how the program was handled.

A key complaint was the urgency expressed by the governor and Preston in getting approval for the money when a dollar has not yet been distributed. Preston acknowledged mistakes in communication that led to the premature rollout of the program. But he insisted nobody had advance word.

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That’s not true.

Preston rests his defense on the fact that the governor announced the program at a news briefing on April 29. So when his department alerted chambers of commerce around the state at 3 p.m., he contends that was just a call about public information. There’s a lot wrong with that in spirit. A lot of eligible people aren’t tied into chambers or watch the governor’s news briefing every day.

But it’s worse than that. I requested and received a mountain of internal documents from the runup to rolling this program out.

I’ll show you just a few pages, with some times highlighted.

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First, is a note at 1:42 p.m. to a lengthy list of recipients including lobbyists for retail grocers, bankers, the real estate industry and others. It came with precise details of the program. OK, technically, the governor might have uttered words about the program by then. But read on.

At 9:49 a.m. that morning, a lobbyist for the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce sent a message to businesses, lobbyists and assorted big shots about the coming program. She said she was sharing it courtesy of Sharon Blevins of the governor’s staff, who’d told her earlier about the coming announcement. At a minimum, it was a good signal to tune in, as many lawyers and lobbyists did, who then got on the horn with their clients. Even better was Mike Preston’s email to state “partners,” chambers of commerce and the like, at 8:34 a.m. about the coming announcement.

Mike Preston told the Legislative Council today his department “didn’t leak information.”

One lawyer/lobbyist bragged to me that his client got in first thanks to his enterprise in watching the governor daily. Not everyone has the spare cash to hire such. In this case, it was a good investment. In the first round, before the program was expanded from $15 million to $147 million, this money was described as first-come-first-served. So getting their firstest meant getting the mostest money. The program subsequently was changed to provide enough for all.

Some legislators are still rankled, as a series of probing questions indicated.

Rep. Jim Dotson told Preston he hoped he’d gotten the message legislators were “frustrated.” He said checks should be cut “today.” Others, such as Sen. Alan Clark, complained that the legislature is often told an emergency existed when the only apparent emergency here was getting legislative approval, not getting the money out. Sen. Blake Johnson repeated his earlier suggestion that the legislature should have approved about half the money and seen how the process went. If more was needed, then put in more.

Another Hutchinson official, Charisse Childers of Workforce Services, was asked by Sen. Linda Chesterfield when the pandemic unemployment assistance checks would be issued. The week of May 18, she said, but not May 18. The situation is “fluid,” she said, but she assured Chesterfield the website was running, though she acknowledged a glitch that required those who applied the first week had to refile their applications.

I just heard from one person seeking the PUA:

Once the system was finally live, I applied for PUA relief and my application is still under “review”. After repeated calls I’ve been told several different ways that they haven’t been able to cope with the deluge. “Check back on Monday”, “We’re beginning reviews on Friday (today)”. I called today and was told, “What I’ve been told is approvals will begin on Monday”. I’ve been straw-polling other sole proprietors, self-employed and non-profit heads about their PUA unemployment applications and all have expressed the same frustration. It’s been many weeks since the state was given the green light on this. What gives? I’m ok for now, but others are suffering badly. Has anyone held the governor’s feet to the fire on this subject?

 

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