THE JUXTAPOSITION: The shaft and the gold mine.

‘STELLAR’: That’s Mike Preston, it’s said, bonused again by Gov. Hutchinson.

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson has insulted every state employee and every state taxpayer by the decision to give his fair-haired Commerce secretary, Mike Preston, a fat bonus for the fifth consecutive year while all other state employees are being denied merit pay raises and while the state’s taxpayers suffer from job loss and other deprivations in the pandemic crisis.

Michael Wickline of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported the details this morning. Preston’s $182,000 salary will be swollen by $54,800 from the Arkansas Economic Development Foundation at the recommendation of the governor.

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The news came the same day the D-G reported on something we’d reported earlier, the governor’s notice that times were simply too tight for merit pay raises for state employees this year. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge issued a similar notice to her staff yesterday. Preston so far is going to have to endure no merit pay bump on the $182,000, poor fellow.

Preston oversaw the state’s tortured and delayed handling of enhanced regular unemployment benefits; the utter fiasco of the Ready for Business grant program and the ongoing shambles of payments under the Pandemic Unemployment Assistance program. His big catch, a Chinese pulp mill in Clark County, got away. Another touted achievement in Forrest City never got off the ground. Claims of incentive deals don’t tell the story of how many of these 1) would have come to Arkansas regardless or 2) how many ultimately fail to deliver. Oh, and Murphy Oil departed the state where it was founded for Texas.

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But this … this … attributed to Foundation president Gus Vratsinas cut it:

He said the fruits of Preston’s labor include his work with the commission’s team, the city of Little Rock, Pulaski County, Port of Little Rock and others to recruit an Amazon building project to the port.

This is baloney. The state played no role in Amazon’s decision to build a huge fulfillment center at the Little Rock Port. I’ve been assured of that by multiple people who WERE involved in talks with Amazon.

The fact is, Amazon wasn’t “recruited.” Amazon has built dozens of these giant retail stores around the country, sited with an eye to coverage of distribution areas. The company is sophisticated about identifying places that best fit their needs. The Port Authority and the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce worked assiduously to promptly and completely answer every question of the developers. Local and federal money powered improvements to Zueber Road on which Amazon trucks will be motoring.

But this wasn’t a state incentive deal. Amazon bought the land. It got no property tax break. It got no handouts of the sort the state is willing to lavish on Chinese communists. It’s questionable whether it will qualify for any of the standard state corporate welfare programs for new businesses because it is viewed as a retail operation that happens to deliver everything by truck rather than to customers in a conventional store. Shopping centers don’t qualify for corporate welfare programs.

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I have repeatedly asked AEDC what they did in the Amazon location in Little Rock and I’ve been repeatedly brushed off. “Not officially announced,” is the standing excuse. The real answer is they contributed nothing. They were nowhere to be found when word of the project leaked from city of Little Rock sources, though I understand they desperately tried to horn in on the action.

But never mind Amazon. Let’s look at unemployment assistance for the self-employed, a subject that Preston first declined to meet with the legislature about (on his paymaster Asa’s order), frosting several lawmakers (“you guys,” Preston called them, to the displeasure of Sen. Terry Rice).

Just this week, the following comments by named readers were made to me after I quoted one of Preston’s underlings as saying that the pandemic assistance website and phone bank were working well for the 30,000 or so applicants. Each paragraph is a different complaint.

…This is incorrect. The website and phone lines are still down.

 

… This is false. Amy Lafont is correct. The phone lines and online forms are still down – as they have been 90% of the time. And even when they ARE working there are constant glitches. After getting the, “We are sorry all agents are busy, try your call again later. Click” message FORTY TWO times, I finally got through. To a dead line. I tried THIRTY ONE times more and finally was put on hold. For fifty one minutes.. the agent had absolutely no idea how to help me, had zero access to my application, and basically just said, “good luck”. The website glitches are so bad that you can’t even get to the login page. I’ve taken a screen recording several minutes long documenting dozens of failed attempts. The governor rushed those first two payments just in time for a press conference by sending unemployment checks containing an additional $600 per check of federally funded money to EVERYONE that applied – whether their claim was legitimate or not. Rather than smoothing out the system and managing time and resources – the process was rushed and severely flawed – to appease the masses in a deceptive way.

… Arkansas has failed at providing federally funded PUA monies to the self employed. Miserably. And after MONTHS of time to make this right it’s inexcusable to continue to deny help to those that desperately need it. We’ve lost our businesses and now we are losing our homes. Bad job Arkansas. Shame on you.

 

… My application is sub-3,000 and I didn’t even get the first $600 payment. I’ve been told my application “looks great” but haven’t received an approval, or even any hope at this point.

 

… Why is our state allowed to act as such an aggravating firewall to federal funds that should have been in our hands months ago?

 

… I applied may 20th It’s been 3 weeks I still havent gotten an approval .. I’ve called 200 times to get someone only to get all lines are busy now call back later.when i finally got through i was on hold for an hour. Still didnt get help. I just need a yes or no..

 

…I applied at the very start, and still have not been able to get my application approved. It is stuck in limbo, and there is no actual person that can answer questions or help me move forward. When I have been able to get through to the call center, they say that they can only answer generic questions, but they are unable to specifically help or work on my application. The last three business days I have called, the phone lines have been down and hang up once I have gotten through the phone tree. I’m beginning to lose hope that I will ever see pandemic unemployment income for my self-employed income losses.

 

… I have been out of work since 3/13/20 and have done everything I can to follow this travesty since the CARES act was signed into law two weeks later, on 3/27/20.

Promise after promise, deadline after deadline, I am still without pay – pay that was allotted to those like myself from the federal government – over two months ago. I remember joking with someone online last month, being pessimistic about pay being distributed by 5/15/20. Ha!

 

… I was among the first to “pre-apply” on the new PUA website, which has been up for over a month now, and have checked my profile every single day to see absolutely zero progress. My application number is sub-3,000 and it is outright insulting to read that they expected to have 21,265 applicants processed as of yesterday (6/7/20). If this is true, why have nearly 20,000 people been processed ahead of me!? I have been told from two different agents that “everything looks great” regarding my application. So why hasn’t it been processed yet??

 

… As I have had to do with the SBA, I will be digging for contacts through AR.gov websites, contacting people via LinkedIn, and sharing my story on social media this week. This whole process is an embarrassment to the state.

 

… My payment is saying (Payment Processed) I am not sure if that means the money is coming? Can someone please help me

 

… any positive response ?

 

… My boyfriend was approved for unemployment & was paid for 2 weeks then they wanted written statement & appear in person which he did. Received another approval letter dated 5/28 with new higher weekly benefit amount and arknet still says decision pending! Weekly claims don’t go through just says pending. No money for 4 weeks now! He’s been to the office 6 times, no help there and forget calling anyone can’t get through. We need the money now!

 

… I have been waiting for my PUA benefits for a whole month now. I applied back on the 7th of May. I received a letter in the mail 2weeks ago that stated that they needed verification that I was disqualified in another state and I was so confused about that letter. I never lived in another state but Arkansas my brother who received the same letter. I’m confused…was this letter sent to everyone still waiting for benefits? And will benefits be paid for those who’s been waiting for a month now? As far the documents I’ve sent everything they needed and still haven’t received anything yet.

 

… I feel like everyone I talk to is giving me the run-around. I have 5 claims that all say “payment has been processed” under the status line. I literally call everyday and wait over an hour to get through to find out where my money is at and they all say “just give it a few days or it might have been redirected to a paper check…..it’s mentally draining to be led on for so long like this. Not to mention I got rejected for regular unemployment after I filed claims for nearly a month and a half before they finally told me over a letter in the mail. It nearly made me break down in tears. If anyone knows what is going on or if I should just give up, please respond.

 

…June 2nd I was finally approved and able to file for retroactive weeks. Called the hotline to make sure I answered all the questions correctly but everything was flagged for review. Waited patiently then called back and was told to change some answers bc i misunderstood a question. Today my very first week, which was 1 day, was approved so someone looked at my file but didn’t look through all the rest of the weeks. Call again and was told it could be another 2 week wait. Grrrr the lady was hilarious though and super friendly but the system sucks

 

…I had a strange issue filing my PUA claim which resulted in an error on my application, I was curious if you’ve heard of this before. When I filed, I don’t believe I was prompted to fill out the field “Date first impacted by COVID-19” and now this field is populated with the day I filed instead of the correct date. My application has long-since been accepted. I’ve called the hotline a couple of times and received completely different answers, that they’re working to fix it and that I would have to file an appeal. I’m emailing you because I’m not the only one in this situation, here’s another instance I found on reddit: https://www.reddit.com/r/Unemployment/comments/h7qrr5/arkansas_date_impacted_by_covid19_pua/

 

And the guy in charge gets a $54,800 bonus?

I haven’t included here an in-depth critique of ongoing web problems I received from a computer-savvy independent contractor in Batesville who had been unable to get a telephone answer in dozens of tries. When he agreed to allow me to pass along his name and phone number to Workforce Services, his problem DID get corrected.

I can’t act as a concierge for every frustrated applicant.

Maybe by next June, when Vratsinas OKs a sixth bonus on the governor’s recommendation, the operation will be as “stellar” as Preston, in the word of Vratsinas.

Again. It’s an insult.

Yes, I know the Foundation runs off money (about $128,000 in the most recent tax year) provided by private businesses. Chump change for them. They are lavished with many considerations by state government — lax regulation; cheap and inadequate unemployment and workers comp coverage for workers; a corporate-friendly tax code, and more.

The money pays for booze at social events (of a sort like the one in China attended by the governor’s son, whose clients include Chinese companies that receive state financial benefits), first-class air tickets to China, India and other far-flung places for Preston and, particularly, a portion of his base pay and these annual fat bonuses.

Nice work if you can get it.