Legislative Council OKs policy to let panels meet outside state


LITTLE ROCK — State legislative committees can meet in surrounding states between annual sessions of the General Assembly as long as both the House and Senate agree under a new policy endorsed Friday by the Legislative Council.

The panel also approved a request by Gov. Mike Beebe to spend $1.1 million in state rainy day funds to help some students pay for graduate medical programs, such as veterinary medicine or dentistry, in other states.

While discussing the new policy that would allow committees to meet in neighboring states, Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said it would allow lawmakers to travel to Memphis, Tenn., or other cities outside the state to look at world-class hospitals for children and trauma. Chesterfield is co-chairman of the Council’s Policy-Making Subcommittee, which recommended the proposal.

“There are a number of instances where we could learn from our fellow states, and hopefully this will put into place something that protects the people’s monies while at the same time allows us to learn … what is going on around us,” Chesterfield said.

Rep. Jonathan Barnett, R-Siloam Springs, told members of the House and Senate transportation committees this week that the Arkansas Waterways Commission wants lawmakers to attend a meeting at the port in Shreveport, La., later this year. The port is used frequently by businesses in southern Arkansas for shipping because it has traffic from both the Ouachita and Red rivers.

Chesterfield said earlier she and other lawmakers thought committees were not allowed to meet in neighboring states, but they learned recently that there is no such rule.

“According to the Bureau (of Legislative Research) there is nothing in policy whatsoever that dealt with meetings out of state that committees wanted to attend,” Chesterfield said.

The new policy stipulates that the out-of-state meetings are to be held in neighboring states to make it easier for Arkansas citizens to attend.

“We don’t want a committee calling a meeting in areas where there is limited access for the public,” she said.

Under the new policy, a meeting can be held in surrounding states between legislative sessions with the approval of the House speaker and Senate president pro tem.

Lawmakers attending the meetings would be paid from interim committee funds for per diem and mileage in the same manner as for in-state committee meetings under the policy.

At Friday’s meeting, Rep. Tommy Thompson, D-Morrilton, said he had concerns about lawmakers spending money in border cities when they could possibly stay in cities on the Arkansas side of the border.

“We would be spending our tax dollars in Memphis instead of staying in West Memphis?” Thompson asked.

“Sir, we’re just proposing the policy,” Chesterfield said. “If you wish to travel to Memphis you could, but it would be subject to the committee chair … and the president pro tem and the speaker of the House. If they chose not to have you go anywhere, then you wouldn’t be going anywhere.”

The policy was endorsed unanimously on a voice vote.

Without discussion, the panel approved a report from the Subcommittee on Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review, which included a recommendation to use $1.1 million from the state’s Rainy Day Fund to make up for a shortfall in the Arkansas Health Education Grants Program.

Because the state does not have a dental school or veterinary school, the program is available to Arkansas students needing financial help to offset out-of-state tuition costs at institutions in other states.

The grant program also covers out-of-state-training for Arkansas students in graduate fields such as optometry and osteopathic medicine, with the idea that those students, after their education is complete, return to practice in Arkansas.

In May, students wishing to attend veterinary school at Louisiana State University were notified that funds were not available through the grant program this fall because of a shortfall.

The governor recommended the transfer from the Rainy Day Fund in June, saying that the Legislature will have to address the shortfall for the next three years.

“The Legislature will have to make funding decisions for the next three years of these students’ grants, and whether will be available to maintain ARHEG financial aid in the future,” Beebe said.