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Vacancy filled on salary-setting commission

by Michael R. Wickline | November 7, 2021 at 12:00 a.m.

House Speaker Matthew Shepherd, R-El Dorado, this week appointed Clark Smith of El Dorado to the seven-member Arkansas Independent Citizens Commission that sets salaries for the state's elected officials.

Smith's appointment comes with the commission planning to take a closer look at comparisons between the elected officials' salaries, benefits and duties and those of their counterparts in other states during its Nov. 17 meeting.

The commission's records also show that two of its members last month questioned whether the Arkansas General Assembly has become essentially a full-time Legislature.

Smith is the senior vice president of Cross Oil in Smackover and has been with the company for 29 years.

Shepherd appointed Smith to the commission on Tuesday, House spokeswoman Cecillea Pond-Mayo said Wednesday.

Smith fills the vacancy created with the resignation of Nathan Evers of El Dorado from the commission in August. Smith will serve the remainder of Evers' four-year term that is set to expire in January 2023.

Shepherd said in a written statement that he asked Smith to consider this appointment to the commission "because I know him to be a leader who cares about his community and our state, and his years of professional experience will be a valuable resource and perspective for the decisions made by the commission." He said he has served with Smith on local boards.

"I have no doubt he will serve on the commission with dedication and integrity," the speaker said.

Smith said in an interview that he's "going into the situation with an unbiased opinion and open mind." He said Shepherd gave him no marching orders for his service on the commission.

The other six commissioners are attorney Chuck Banks of Little Rock, former Arkansas Supreme Court Justice Annabelle Imber Tuck of Little Rock, businessman Phillip Fletcher of Bentonville, businessman Jonathan Rogers of North Little Rock, Tommy May of Pine Bluff and Jan Zimmerman of Little Rock.

This fall, the commission approved 3% pay raises for the state's elected officials.

In preparation for future deliberations, the commission asked Bureau of Legislative Research Director Marty Garrity to provide comparative information at the Nov. 17 meeting for Arkansas, Iowa, Louisiana, Missouri, Oklahoma and Tennessee lawmakers; whether they are part-time or full-time legislators; and their salaries, travel, per diem and any other expense reimbursements or benefits, according to the commission's records.

The commission also requested that House Chief of Staff Roy Ragland and Senate Secretary Ann Cornwell provide information at that meeting about the duties and full benefits provided by law for representatives and senators and the Senate president pro tempore and House speaker.

In addition, the commission asked Marty Sullivan, director of the Administrative Office of the Courts, to provide information at the Nov. 17 meeting about the duties of state Supreme Court justices, state Court of Appeals judges, circuit judges and district judges; caseload statistics for 2018, 2019 and 2020; and full benefits provided by law.

Tuck said Wednesday in an interview that most of the commissioners, except for Banks, are relatively new to the commission.

The commission wants to go through the process of comparing the salaries with those in other states, as the commission did when it was created in 2015, she said.

She noted that the commission in recent years has focused on comparisons of judges' salaries with those of their counterparts in other states, but not for state lawmakers and the state's other constitutional officers.

In an email dated Oct. 25 to Banks about information that Tuck would like the commission to have for its Nov. 17 meeting, Tuck wrote that "Over the past several years, the Arkansas Legislature has been having Council/Committee meetings throughout the year and, more recently, there have been more special sessions.

"How does that affect salary levels? In other words, do we have a defacto full-time Legislature in Arkansas?" In an email dated Oct. 28 to Tuck in which Banks said he wants a representative from the House, Senate and Bureau of Legislative Research at the Nov. 17 meeting, Banks wrote, "I do believe that we have fast become a DeFacto full-time legislature when it was not intended, but I don't have persuasive proof of it." Banks could not be reached for comment by telephone or email on Wednesday.

Senators and representatives are paid $44,356 a year in salary, while the salaries for the speaker of the House and the Senate president pro tempore are $50,661 a year.

In addition, lawmakers are paid per diem and mileage during legislative sessions and for attending committee meetings in between legislative sessions. Per diem (a daily allowance for lodging, meals and incidentals) and mileage payments are intended to be expense reimbursements. Lawmakers also are reimbursed for out-of-state travel to legislative conferences.

The Legislature's regular session this year lasted 118 days. It was slowed by precautions taken amid the COVID-19 pandemic and a week's break after a severe snowfall. Lawmakers also met in a three-day special session in August. Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Tuesday that he will probably call the Legislature into special session sometime after Thanksgiving to consider a proposed income tax cut package.

Amendment 94 to the Arkansas Constitution -- approved by voters in 2014 -- shifted the responsibility for changing the annual salaries of the state's elected officials from the Legislature to what the amendment calls the independent citizens commission. The governor, House speaker and Senate president pro tempore each make two appointments to the commission, and the chief justice of the state Supreme Court makes one appointment.

Amendment 94 also extended term limits for state lawmakers; imposed a ban on certain gifts from lobbyists to the state's elected officials, including meals and drinks in one-on-one meetings; and barred direct corporate and union contributions to candidates.

In March 2015, the Independent Citizens Commission boosted the salaries of representatives and senators from $15,869 a year to $39,500, and those for the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore from $17,771 a year to $45,000. Lawmakers eliminated their eligibility to receive up to $14,400 a year in certain office-related expenses in exchange for the pay raise granted by the citizens commission.

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