Legislative Audit Committees meet

Well, we have completed another semi-suspenseful week at the Legislature. There is always some suspense and consternation when the Legislative Audit Committees meet as they did Thursday and Friday. Legislators again expressed their frustrations with a report given that stated that less than 14 percent of the 246 audit findings determined to be “criminal offenses” were actually turned over to state attorneys in part of 2012 and 2013 for prosecution.

Legislators felt it was frustrating to see the state spend so much money auditing and having all these hearings and then the same entities are back a few months later with the same problems.  Of the 246 cases recommended to prosecutors, charges were filed in only 33 cases even though more than $15 million was misappropriated, missing or stolen money. So far, 18 of these cases ended in a conviction, one case ended with an acquittal and 14 are still pending in court.  

According to the report, prosecutors declined to prosecute five cases, found insufficient evidence in 119 cases, and determined that 43 other cases showed actions that may have been unethical, but not illegal. Forty-six cases are still under review. Legislators questioned how some actions clearly in conflict with state law can result in insufficient evidence. Questions and frustrations abound. (One of my obvious questions is, “How can you lose two road graders?”) Stay attuned for more debate about this issue.

Among other recent audit findings discussed last week, an employee at the Arkansas Department of Information Systems violated the state’s vehicle policy and DIS itself abused its use of contract labor, according to a legislative audit report released last Thursday. The Department of Information Systems manages the state’s Internet, phone and data networks for public schools and various other state agencies.

The report said auditors found 13 instances where contract labor was used longer than allowed under state law resulting in $31,640 in unauthorized pay for temporary workers. Jerry Pack, the department’s chief financial officer, said the department was working on a large project during the audit time frame and wasn’t aware of the state’s limit on temporary labor.

Auditors also found that one employee violated the state’s take-home car policy by not reporting the use of the car to commute to work on his taxes for the entire 2013 fiscal year. Herschel Cleveland, deputy director of the department, said the employee who had been given the take-home car retired this week. Cleveland said the employee was in charge of maintenance at the department’s service towers across the state and was authorized to use the vehicle because he never knew when he’d be called out.

I find it interesting that the department has been under increased scrutiny recently as other “entities” wrestle for control of Internet service that is affordable and adequate for every school district.

Gov. Mike Beebe recently ordered the Department of Finance and Administration to conduct a full performance audit of the department in August, spurred by concerns from these other interested parties that the present state-owned infrastructure is costly and outdated. So do we really need another agency?

The department has also lost some of its responsibilities as other state agencies, such as the Department of Human Services, open in-house information technology divisions to manage their individual Internet and communication networks. Part of the Finance and Administration audit will be considering whether Information Systems is operating efficiently in light of those responsibilities being absorbed by other agencies.

In a continuation of the same Internet debate, prudent leaders recognize that we need to gather more impartial information before we can determine the true costs, needs and feasibility of providing adequate broadband Internet access to schools throughout the state using an entirely new system. Therefore the Legislature has requested two reports/opinions on the matter.  

The first report was a new $71,500 study presented by consultants Picus Odden and Associates last week. This report is one of two being compiled at the request of the Legislature to impartially advise on the future decisions to be made during the 2015 session.  

The report surmised that Arkansas may not need to be as aggressive about our bandwidth and that our present plans are good and correct at this point. The Picus Odden study concluded that a goal to provide every student with the capability to transfer 100 kilobits per second of data was reasonable, but the state might not need to reach the federal goal of providing one gigabit of Internet capacity for every 1,000 students immediately. The current standard that [federal officials] have is not unreasonable, but the 2017-18 standard may not be necessary at this point.  However, it may be something worth looking at in the future.

In addition to the Picus Odden study, legislators have also approved a boots-on-the-ground, district-by-district assessment of what services are available now, what equipment exists now, how much schools are paying for service now, and how much more broadband access, if any, they will need to meet the state’s goal for Internet speed available to every student by 2018.

The Picus Odden study concluded that until that planned assessment is complete, the state cannot/should not move forward with a funding plan or any recommendations on building new infrastructure or tapping into existing infrastructure.

Rep. Jeremy Gillam, incoming Speaker of the House, said the Picus Odden report was useful because it helped us look ahead a little bit, but could not tell us exactly where we are on the issue until we get the “boots-on-the-ground” true picture of our needs, costs and the feasibility of the desired results with either system. He also said that this information really frames the importance of the “boots-on-the-ground” report that we’ll be getting back in December. Together these reports will hopefully help us make the right decisions in the 2015 session.

Have a great week!

The Advance-Monticellonian

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