One measure of citizenship is the quality of an individual’s participation in a civic community. By that measure, El Dorado citizens are playing a significant role in shaping Arkansas’ future.
Consider two examples: the Murphy Commission (1996-98) and the Efficiency Project announced in 2015 by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin.
Gov. Mike Huckabee’s first act in 1996 involved a citizen panel, the Murphy Commission, chaired by Madison Murphy of El Dorado. The panel involved more than 100 citizens and spent two years reviewing state government before issuing policy reports and recommendations.
One measure of the panel’s impact: it recommended charter schools as an education reform. Today, more than 25,000 students, including many from low-income families in failing school districts like Little Rock attend charters. Other enacted policies included a uniform K-12 accounting system, administrative restructuring and a capital gains rate cut to make Arkansas more competitive.
Two decades later, Gov. Hutchinson announced the Efficiency Project by observing, “Transparency, accountability, and efficiency promote the people’s faith in good government.” He called for ” a critical evaluation” of state government “to ensure the cost-effective delivery of services.”
The Project raised private funds from Arkansas foundations and citizens and retained PricewaterhouseCoopers, an international consulting firm, to examine the state Department of Finance and Administration. A second panel, composed of citizens ranging from a 20-year-old college student to a 96-year-old retired state budget analyst, reviewed other Arkansas agencies. Both occurred in 2016.
The Project’s recommendations served as the basis for the Transformation Advisory Board announced by Gov. Hutchinson in 2017. The Board included state Rep. Matthew Shepherd of El Dorado, current Arkansas House speaker. Gov. Hutchinson’s proposal to reorganize 42 state agencies into 15 emerged from these efforts.
Other actions, less-publicized, were informed by the Project’s citizenship. The student, Marshall Harmon of Greenbrier found only four state agencies include “efficiency” in their mission statements. Today, 11 agencies include the word. The analyst, the late Tom Easterly of Hot Springs Village, explained the input of state employees was important. The Project found the state has an employee suggestion program but agencies were not using it. Today, the program is used.
PwC examined a significant problem with the state’s tax assessment and collection processes, which led to a “significant backlog of taxes for the State.” The firm noted, “The State has approximately $1.434B in uncollected tax debts, of which $321M has been deemed collectable by the State. Possibly as a result of uncollected taxes, the State’s Tax ROI is among the lowest in the nation.”
DFA began an “afterhours phone line pilot program to facilitate collections,” 2017 testimony shows. A 2018 report shows DFA’s “collection recovery” improved from $111.3 million (2016) to $132.3 million (2017) and $170.1 million (2018). The second shift payment plans led to $19.2 million in collections in 2017-18.
Citizens can make a big difference when they volunteer ideas and decide to make a difference.
Greg Kaza is executive director of the Arkansas Policy Foundation, a Little Rock think tank founded in 1995. The Murphy Commission and Efficiency Project were Foundation initiatives.