A look at the session, ARP, and a looming labor challenge
By Chris Villines
AAC Executive Director
I recall writing in our last issue that this could be a session with an asterisk. Without a doubt, it was. BUT … that asterisk did not apply to the pass/fail rate of proposed county legislation, nor did it apply to some of the metrics by which we normally rate a legislative session.
In 2017, there were 2,680 bills filed, with 1,130 becoming Acts. In 2019, 1,864 bills were filed, with 1,091 becoming Acts. The current 2021 session brought us 1,675 bills with 1,112 becoming Acts. While the number of bills filed decreased for the third straight session, the number signed into law has remained steady.
Part of the reason for the reduction in bills filed in the 2021 session is the recent transformation of state government. In the past years, appropriation bills in some cases were filed separately for many different departments. This year saw some of these bills consolidated into fewer pieces of legislation. Also, a reason for the higher number in 2017 was the bill filing deadline. We did not have this deadline in 2019 or 2021. It is counterintuitive, but a bill filing deadline results in a high number of shell bills filed as placeholders in the event a legislator wants to amend and pursue legislation later in the session.
Some other important metrics for our counties are available. In 2017, we tracked 537 bills that would affect county government. In 2019, we tracked 493 bills and in 2021, we tracked 508 bills. In 2017, 2019 and 2021, we saw 263, 254 and 286 bills that affect county government become Acts, respectively.
The most important stat, though, is the track of AAC Legislative Package bills. While data for 2017 is unavailable, I can tell you that for many years we’ve passed these bills at approximately a 90 percent clip. The last two sessions are no different. In 2019, we passed 29 of our 31 filed bills — a 94 percent success rate. Again in 2021, we passed around 94 percent of our package bills, garnering the Governor’s signature on 31 of our 33 package bills.
I attribute our success at the Capitol to several things, but three really stand out. The vetting process of our legislative committee, led by Terry McNatt (Craighead County Treasurer) and the AAC Board of Directors, led by President Debbie Wise (Randolph County Circuit Clerk), run the well-oiled machine that is the AAC legislative process. The vetting among our member associations, followed by the AAC Legislative Committee and then the AAC Board of Directors is incredible. By the time a bill makes it into our legislative package it is looked at front-ways, side-ways, upside down and from the top. Any conflicts with other groups are worked out before the bill is put in final form. Thank you all for the hard work you do on these boards to make this process work.
Secondly, the respect the legislature has for our county officials means they trust bills you put forward. If I heard the “Association of Arkansas Counties” mentioned in the well of the Senate or House one time this session, I heard it a hundred times. Our stamp of approval is valued because legislators trust you guys and know you have reviewed and approved these bills at some point in the process.
Finally, our staff here at the AAC is also well respected. They have earned it. Mark Whitmore, Lindsey French, Josh Curtis and Eddie Jones walk alongside each association as they put needed legislation together. They work with legislators and the Bureau of Legislative Research (BLR) to draft and file these bills. Our team drafts the language in most cases and presents the legislator and BLR with what would be a final, drafted copy. I know this level of detail is appreciated by all and makes for a smoother process.
In addition to our staff that works directly with the legislators, I am proud to work alongside Christy L. Smith and Holland Doran. Their communication skills are impeccable, and you all stay informed through their efforts. You also stay informed by my assistant Anne Baker, who is responsible for getting weekly legislative updates out to you and reported on our website. By the time the session ends, all these folks are worn to a nub, don’t want to ever see a bill again, but instead immediately begin communicating legislation to our member associations.
In the end, this was the longest session I can recall at 107 days. And by the way, it’s not over. It “ended” in a recess so the legislators can return this fall for congressional redistricting. There is much to cover, and we will be attending your association meetings through the summer to bring you up to speed on legislative changes. Meanwhile, if you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to call any of us.
With the close of the legislative session, our team has quickly turned our attention to the American Rescue Plan (ARP). In the last few days, we’ve hit two big milestones. First, the money has begun flowing to counties. County Treasurers are in the process of utilizing the U.S. Treasury Department’s website to notify them of the proper bank account to transfer this money to. The total amount of money given to counties for community investments is approximately $580 million — half now and half no less than a year from now.
The second big piece of news was the release of our first round of treasury guidance — a 150-page document called the Interim Final Rule for Fund Guidance. Remember, this will evolve, so we expect clearer guidance over time.
The AAC has been working to put together a panel of experts on ARP that our counties can utilize in conjunction with other in-house or local experts, and we recently offered a Zoom call to walk through our offerings of help and to answer questions for County Judges and Treasurers. We are proud to partner with Lindsey Holman of Holman and Associates as one of our experts in federal guidance. Many of you may know her from her experience with the National Association of Counties (NACo) and her attendance at our AAC conferences. She is a Pope County native and has returned to Arkansas from the D.C. area.
Our website now has a landing page for the ARP program, which includes links to the U.S. Department of Treasury for guidance and the money receipting portal. Also included is the video of the Zoom call mentioned above. This video is an excellent way to learn about the intricacies and many gray areas of this funding stream.
For now, we recommend patience. We, along with our experts and national experts such as NACo are pouring through the 150 pages of guidance and continuing to ask treasury for specific instructions. If you have read the guidance, you will agree much is unclear. We hope to clear things up over time and ask you to be very deliberate in decisions on how this money will be invested in your counties. Beware that money ill-spent is subject to federal claw-back. Regardless of who misspends your investment money, the federal government will seek claw-back from the county.
Counties, a dangerous cloud is looming on the horizon. Counties may be particularly hard-hit, and law enforcement as a sub-set especially. The labor market has become a major issue for the restarting of our economy post-covid. The reason I want to alert you is that counties historically lag behind local economy wage increases. If we remain stagnant and pay less than the egg-fryer at the local pancake shop we will surely suffer. Law enforcement will be hit especially hard, as they provide jobs that imperil one’s life at a lower hourly wage than wood-stackers make. Bottom line is county jobs will not be competitively attractive.
I encourage all of you to keep a close eye on labor market issues in your counties — be prepared to see hiring practices affected for our traditionally lower-paying positions. We will keep you posted if and when we see this problem becoming more local in nature.