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story.lead_photo.caption Rep. Andy Davis returns to his seat Thursday with his 2,049-page bill on government reorganization after presenting it to the House even though it wasn’t on the initial agenda. More photos at - Photo by Mitchell PE Masilun

The Arkansas House on Thursday approved Gov. Asa Hutchinson's executive branch reorganization plan after hearing grumbling from several members about how the legislation was taken to the House floor.

House Bill 1763 by Rep. Andy Davis, R-Little Rock, which would reduce the number of state agencies reporting to the governor from 42 to 15 -- wasn't included on the initial Thursday agenda, but House leaders have said over the past week that a floor vote was expected before the General Assembly adjourned for the weekend.

A group of representatives supported a motion to delay a vote on the bill until Monday, but it was defeated in a close voice vote. The bill ultimately passed 82-0 with 10 voting present.

Several members expressed concerns about the amount of time provided to read the 2,049-page bill. It was filed last Friday and heard Wednesday afternoon in committee. Before the introduction of HB1763, individual bills addressing each of the 15 Cabinet-level agencies were introduced and presented to committee earlier in the session before being combined into the bill considered Thursday.

Davis said he wanted a floor vote Thursday because he expected several members to be absent next week due to spring break.

[RELATED: Complete Democrat-Gazette coverage of the Arkansas Legislature]

"There's nothing nefarious in trying to run this today," Davis said. "In my opinion, there's no effort to try and ram this through today other than this was the schedule we thought we were going to be on. We're trying to keep it."

The legislation proposes consolidating state agencies and entities into 15 Cabinet-level departments led by secretaries, beginning in July. Hutchinson has estimated that the measure could save about $15 million a year starting in fiscal 2021, which begins July 1, 2020.

If the bill passes in the Senate, it would mark the passage of the fourth and final pillar of Hutchinson's legislative package for the 2019 General Assembly. His other priorities included income tax cuts, a highway funding plan and a minimum teacher pay increase -- all of which have been signed into law.

"After two years of intense work by dozens of business leaders, state-agency directors, and lawmakers, I am gratified that the House has passed this landmark bill and taken the first steps of the path toward transforming Arkansas government," Hutchinson said in a statement. "This reorganization is necessary for Arkansas government to be efficient, properly managed, and cost-efficient in the delivery of services."

The proposal, if enacted, would be the most sweeping overhaul since then-Gov. Dale Bumpers, a Democrat, led an effort to merge 60 agencies into 13 reporting to him through Act 38 of 1971.

HB1763 would create the following Cabinet-level departments: agriculture; commerce; corrections; education; energy and environment; finance and administration; health; human services; inspector general; labor and licensing; military; parks, heritage and tourism; public safety; transformation and shared services; and veteran affairs.

"This is strictly an administrative reorganization," Davis said from the House well Thursday. "No entity, agency, board, commission or et cetera loses any of their funding today or in the future. They also don't lose any policy-making authority."

Davis added that no state retirement systems would be affected by the reorganization.

The bill also permits Hutchinson to appoint a 25-member transition team comprised of state employees to implement the plan, which Davis said could take a significant amount of time.

Davis and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, served on the governor's Transformation Advisory Board, which studied ways to make state government more efficient.

Rep. Clint Penzo, R-Springdale, questioned Davis about the timing of his bill Thursday, saying it received preferential treatment.

"This bill has been in [the Bureau of Legislative Research] and has sucked the energy out of [the bureau]," Penzo said. "I've got bills that I haven't seen first drafts of yet because of that stack of paper on your desk. I'm just wondering why this one is getting special treatment. Is somebody concerned that this might not make it through the session, that it might not have time?"

Davis replied that he wasn't concerned.

Rep. Laurie Rushing, R-Hot Springs, said the vote should be delayed because it put members in the position of voting on a bill they hadn't completely read.

While several representatives asked for more time, Rep. Douglas House, R-North Little Rock, stood several times to ask a question, but never got the chance to. House later said he had intended to ask those seeking more time why they had not read the bill in its piecemeal version, the first of which was filed in December.

"They had time to read the precursors," House said.

Sen. Ron Caldwell, chairman of the Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committee, said his panel will begin considering the bill Tuesday, starting at 7:30 a.m. until 10 a.m.

"We'll hear as long as it takes. I don't think it will take 22 meetings like it did on the original [16] bills," the Wynne Republican said in an interview. "But we will review it and come up with any recommendations that the committee may have."

Caldwell said he hadn't been approached by any senators who oppose the bill, but he expected some changes to the legislation.

He also said the Public Service Commission needs to be a rule-making body "without too much political influence." The commission regulates the rates and service of public utilities.

Hutchinson has proposed placing the Public Service Commission in the Department of Energy and Environment.

One option could be taking the commission out of that department, Caldwell said.

"We'll have some changes," he said. "We'll just see how that goes and if the amendments are made because the changes are not really aggressive. It is some that have common-sense facts behind them."

Information for this article was contributed by Michael R. Wickline and John Moritz of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

A Section on 03/15/2019

Print Headline: House passes government organization measure

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