Good timing on Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s decision to forego coronavirus briefings this weekend. The questioning might have been — should have been — uncomfortable.
The list is long:
- A whistle-blowing computer expert told the Arkansas Times, and we informed the Workforce Services Division, that the website set up to process claims for unemployment benefits under the special program for self-employed left Social Security numbers, bank account information and other personal information left unprotected for 30,000 applicants. As a result, the system was shut down last night for fixes.
Many questions remain. What private contractor did the website work and what was the basis for their selection? How much were they paid? Might similar problems be found on other state websites, including the regular unemployment benefits website, which underwent changes to handle the crush of applicants?
This is a benefits program fully operational in the majority of the U.S. that hasn’t issued a dime’s worth of payments and potential beneficiaries are howling. Checks are promised next week. Not Monday, however, Workforce Services Director Charisse Childers told legislators Friday even as she bragged on the completion of the website. Things are “fluid,” she told legislators. No kidding. That was before the Arkansas Times discovered the gaping security breach.
- Michael Wickline gave deeper coverage in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette than I was able to muster to the grilling Commerce Secretary Mike Preston (also boss over Workforce Sevices) got from unhappy members of the Legislative Council over the mishandled Ready for Business grant program.
After rolling out the program April 29 without notice to, or approval of, the legislature the program eventually was increased from $15 million to $147 million.
But … since then Preston imposed a variety of limits on the program without — again — fully consulting the legislature. He decided to not spend all the money; to dole it out in two payments; to devote 75 percent to businesses with fewer than 50 employees and to cap payments at $50,000.
The Legislative Council upended all that. It said spend ALL the money; make it one payment; pay up to $100,000 so all 311 businesses that asked for $100,000 get it. I have some sympathy for Preston. A two-part payment plan might give time to be sure needs are genuine, applications are carefully vetted and auditing is done. Poor folks can only dream they could get food stamps, health coverage and needy family benefits so easily and quickly.
This was also depicted as a vital aid to small businesses, but the legislature put the thumb on the scale for big businesses. As usual.
But still: Where did Preston get off rewriting the rules without authorization? Sen. Terry Rice castigated Preston for a “casual” attitude toward “you guys” in the legislature. Once again: This was a key factor in the Senate’s recent election of Sen. Jimmy Hickey as their leader next year, after leadership by the governor’s nephew, on his promise to regain a little of the power that has been ceded to the Hutchinson administration.
But there’s more.
- Not a dollar has been distributed yet in the Ready for Business grant program that was deemed such an emergency it was rolled out without notice to the legislature. That was April 29. Today is May 16.
- Mike Preston either lied or was uninformed when he told the legislature Friday that nobody got advance word of this grant program.
As Wickline reported it:
Preston told lawmakers that the program was announced at 1:30 p.m. April 29 at the governor’s daily news conference and would begin accepting applications at 5 p.m.
“That was the first time that we talked about that publicly to anyone,” Preston said.
An item I wrote yesterday includes a link to the email I obtained under FOI involving his staff, the governor’s staff and a lobbyist for the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce that shows in black and white that word of the program began circulating to the state’s major lobbyists at least four hours before the governor’s news conference. 12 minutes after that news conference began, the precise details of the program were distributed to business lobbyists and other insiders. Business insiders from local chambers of commerce were further briefed at 3 p.m. by the AEDC. Your average poor schmuck could be forgiven for working during these hours and for not having the dough to hire a lobbyist. To hear Mike Preston tell it, every working stiff in Arkansas is expected to tune into the governor’s daily briefing.
When the website went live at 5 p.m., it took only four minutes for the first completed application to be filed and barely a half-hour before all the money was way overcommitted. Rep. Robin Lundstrum said she couldn’t believe a 16-page application could be completed in four minutes without advance information “unless they were magical.” She also complained she couldn’t get a list of the name of applicants and the amount sought. I was denied that under an FOI request weeks ago. The AEDC contends that information is not public until a grant is approved.
Since this was announced as a first-come-first-served program, you can see where a heads-up was vital and the insiders’ briefing screwed thousands.
Preston has some explaining to do about the misinformation he solemnly delivered to legislators (some of whom also indicated unhappiness about his catering to Chinese business interests.)
And there’s more.
- COVID-19 numbers nerds continue to complain about how the daily briefing includes a steady diet of excuses on the state’s poor testing effort and the claim that the positive testing rate is around 2.5 percent when — going by numbers provided by the governor for numbers tested and new cases — the percentage is often around 6 or 7 percent.
Leslie Peacock got an answer on this yesterday from Gavin Lesnick, a new communications spokesman at the Health Department.
Here’s some information on why the positivity rate doesn’t necessarily line up with the case numbers mentioned at the briefing:
The positivity rate reflects the number of positive test results among all test results in a 24-hour calendar day. The number of new cases shared at the governor’s press briefing can extend between two calendar days, typically from 10 a.m. to 10 a.m., so those numbers reflect different periods. Also, some new positive cases received by the Department of Health reflect results from a previous day. These would be included in new cases mentioned by the governor, but they would be figured into the positivity rate for the day the result was learned.
OK. This is along the lines of what I figured. I’ve stopped doing a count update based on the state website and stick with the number given at the 1:30 p.m. briefings each day, figuring that that is at least a reliable benchmark.
But it is NOT reliable to give two metrics from different periods at the same time.
Suggestion to the Health Department and governor: Either get an accurate matchup of testing results and new cases or stop presenting them at the same time.
And one more question for the governor.
- Why did you cut off a follow-up question from the well-prepared reporter who cited statistics to refute Nate Smith’s assertion that Memphis had a higher infection rate than Crittenden County? Gov. Hutchinson abruptly cut her off and declared the question answered. It had not been.