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Gov. Asa Hutchinson will propose merging the Correction Department and Community Correction as part of his plan to reduce to fewer than 20 the number of state agencies reporting to him, Hutchinson told a county judges group on Thursday.

He said he hopes to reveal the rest of his plan later this month. In a related matter, he later said he doesn't plan to merge state retirement systems, as has been feared by some.

"Whenever you look at the future, efficiencies are a big part of what we need to do in state government, but you also implement that in county government," the Republican governor told several dozen people attending a luncheon meeting of the County Judges Association of Arkansas. The meeting was held in North Little Rock.

In contrast to the 42 departments that report to him now, Hutchinson pointed out that the federal government has 13 Cabinet officials.

"I can think we can organize our government in a better way, to be more responsive to me, to deliver services better for the system and to be efficient and save money along the way," he said.

"We had an examination of one set of agencies and the recommendation was made by our outside consultant as well as our internal review, and it probably doesn't take an outside consultant to figure that this is the right way to go," Hutchinson said.

"But it was a consensus, and it's my view that we ought to merge the Department of Correction and the Department of Community Correction into one agency that will better serve our counties across the state," he said.

The Correction Department operates the state's prisons. Community Correction oversees pardon and parole programs.

"That's just one little sliver of what you'll see as we roll out our transformation plan as it comes to fruition, as we present it to the Legislature, and I hope to lay out the entire scope of that plan by the end of September so we can have public comment, so that we can have your ideas and make sure that we have it right and correct as we present it to the General Assembly next year," Hutchinson said.

In May, the Legislative Council approved a $900,000 state contract through May 28, 2019, with the London-based PricewaterhouseCoopers consulting firm to help the Hutchinson administration develop plans to reorganize state government. Hutchinson's plan contemplates the largest reorganization of state government since 1971 when Democratic Gov. Dale Bumpers led the enactment of a plan to reduce the number of state agencies from 6o t0 13.

Community Correction makes up less than a quarter of the $440 million-a-year corrections budget. It oversees the majority of offenders, including 60,000 parolees and probationers, as well as some people housed in short-term lockups. The Correction Department has about 16,000 inmates and its director is Wendy Kelley.

In July, the Board of Corrections fired Community Correction Director Sheila Sharp. She suggested she was ousted for defying the governor's orders not to ask for staff increases without his approval.

After his remarks at Thursday's meeting, Hutchinson confirmed he doesn't plan to propose merging state government's retirement systems.

"That is not part of our transformation efforts," he said. "We want to focus on the large agencies and the 42 that report to me, but you'll see more details later."

On Wednesday, Rep. Doug House, R-North Little Rock, co-chairman of the Joint Committee on Public Retirement and Social Security Programs, also said he doesn't plan to propose merging retirement systems and he is unaware of any such proposal.

"How can you compare, for instance, the investments you need to make for a 45- or 50-year-old state policeman retiring because of disability versus a teacher who went to work right after college and maybe [has] a master's degree and is trying to put in 30 or 40 years?" House said during a joint meeting of his committee with another. "It just won't work.

"So we are not trying to merge the systems. We are not trying to convert any of the present systems into any other kind of system, and that's not going to be possible. You have vested interests, so whatever you might have heard to the contrary is simply not true," he said.

The Arkansas Education Association, which represents teachers, has warned its members to watch out for any legislative attempt to change the makeup of the Teacher Retirement System's board of trustees by replacing the trustees elected by system members with political appointees. The Arkansas Education Association memo also warned members to watch for attempts to replace the system's defined benefit plan with a defined contribution plan such as a 401(k) plan or to place the system's operations, investments and decisions under direct legislative control, according to a copy of the document.

The Arkansas Teacher Retirement System is state government's largest with more than $17 billion in investments and more than 100,000 working and retired members.

Others include the Arkansas Public Employees Retirement System, State Police Retirement System, Judicial Retirement System, State Highway Employees Retirement System and Arkansas Local Police and Fire Retirement System.

"What we are trying to do is to plan for the inevitably of a downturn in the market and what it will do with these pension systems," House said in an interview after Wednesday's meeting. "That's our objective. It is to make sure that we can survive such an event. That's it. We can't stand another 2008 and 2009 [downturn]. Our systems probably will not survive."

Metro on 09/14/2018

Print Headline: Correction agencies on merger list

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