Budget committee rejects proposal to reduce Arkansas PBS’ spending authority

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A legislative panel on Thursday narrowly rejected a proposed 20% reduction to Arkansas PBS’ spending authority for fiscal year 2025.

Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, has repeatedly been critical of the publicly funded educational television station. He presented the Joint Budget Committee with an amendment to Arkansas PBS’ fiscal 2025 appropriations bill that would have reduced the agency’s spending authority for privately raised funds from $8.96 million to $7.17 million.

Sullivan told his fellow committee members Thursday that the proposed amendment would reduce Arkansas PBS’ spending power but not the actual amount of money the agency has.

In order to spend more money than their appropriation allows, PBS officials would have to seek approval from the Arkansas Legislative Council’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review (PEER) subcommittee.

“If we need to cut those appropriations to a level where people have to come to PEER who have a history of not managing well, I think that’s a really good precedent to set,” Sullivan said.

PBS administrators faced questions from lawmakers last year about the results of a 2022 audit of the agency that revealed what auditors considered questionable purchasing practices. Auditors and lawmakers expressed concerns that PBS officials sidestepped state laws related to contract bidding, possibly intentionally. CEO Courtney Pledger and her cohorts insisted they had no such intentions.

In August, a Legislative Joint Auditing subcommittee tabled a potential merit pay raise for Pledger at Sullivan’s urging, citing the lack of resolution of the 2022 audit.

In November, the full Legislative Joint Auditing Committee authorized a fresh audit to examine more than two years of “procurements and related processes” at Arkansas PBS.

Sullivan said Thursday that he did not think a reduced appropriation would impact the network’s programming. Pledger said this was not necessarily true.

“Depending on what would be approved before PEER, it may or may not seriously hamper programming,” she said.


Arkansas PBS receives $6.2 million in taxpayer dollars but also operates with money from grants and donations. Sullivan’s amendment would have applied exclusively to the private funds, and he said the Legislature should oversee how state agencies spend money from all sources.

Sen. Clarke Tucker, D-Little Rock, said he found this “counterintuitive.”

“We have an agency here that supplements the money they receive through general revenue through their own grit,” Tucker said. “That’s the type of behavior we should encourage among state agencies, and here we are saying, ‘If you want to spend the money that you get on your own, you’re going to have to come and kiss the ring.’”

Tucker was one of several Democratic lawmakers to vote against the amendment. Four Republican House members also voted no: Les Eaves of Searcy, Jeff Wardlaw of Hermitage, Jim Wooten of Beebe and House Speaker Matthew Shepherd of El Dorado.

The committee members who supported Sullivan’s amendment were exclusively Republicans. Rep. Robin Lundstrum, an Elm Springs Republican and chair of the auditing committee’s state agencies subcommittee, called the 2022 audit “a disaster” and the proposed amendment “extremely helpful” and “a measured approach” to government oversight of Arkansas PBS.

Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said she did not expect the Legislature to ever consider reducing the spending power of executive branch agencies due to negative or questionable findings in an audit.

“I believe [some people] would have had a problem with PBS whether they had findings or not,” she said. “I think those problems accrue from some people who are disgruntled, perhaps reasonably so, but I don’t want us to set a precedent whereby every time we do something to an agency we don’t like, we might treat them differently than some other agencies.”

Chesterfield also reminded Sullivan that he has said equal treatment is important to him.

Sullivan sponsored a bill last year to end affirmative action in Arkansas, calling it “state-sponsored discrimination” that impeded the ability to judge Arkansans on merit. The bill narrowly passed the Senate but was voted down in the House.

Past legislation

Rep. Nicole Clowney, D-Fayetteville, said she remembered Sullivan trying to reduce Arkansas PBS’ spending authority during the 2022 fiscal session; Sullivan said he took issue with “being accused” of this.

In February 2022, Sullivan introduced a bill that would have cut the network’s appropriations for both private and state funds by a cumulative 25%. The bill died in the Joint Budget Committee at the end of the fiscal session.

Sullivan said in an interview after Thursday’s committee meeting that he did not remember his reasons for introducing the 2022 bill.

In response to Clowney’s questions, Sullivan said the Legislature should ensure that every state agency’s spending power has limits.

He compared his proposal to Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders’ proposed fiscal 2025 state budget. The $6.3 billion general revenue budget proposal includes a significantly smaller spending increase — $109 million, or 1.76% — compared to previous fiscal years’ annual 3% hikes. Sanders has touted this as a reduction of “government’s spiraling growth.”

Clowney said she had “big concerns” that PEER would not approve additional appropriations requests from Arkansas PBS if the agency had to request them. Sullivan said he could not predict any legislative panel’s voting behavior.

In December, PEER tabled an appropriation request from the agency because Pledger had been absent at several legislative hearings in which PBS was on the agenda. Lawmakers said her absence was disrespectful; the network’s then-chief financial officer, Karen Watkins, said Pledger missed the December meeting due to illness.

Clowney asked Sullivan if his proposed appropriation cut was due to disapproval of any of the network’s programming. Sullivan did not answer the question.

In December 2021, Arkansas PBS retracted two requests to enter into federally-funded contracts for educational programming after Sullivan claimed a producer’s social media posts were too liberal, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported.

This article was originally published by the Arkansas Advocate and is republished here under a Creative Commons license.

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