Late-session funny business: Panic button spending | Arkansas Blog

Late-session funny business: Panic button spending

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The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported this morning that the legislative Joint Budget Committee yesterday approved using $800,000 in Arkansas Economic Development Commission money to pay to operate a panic button alert system in Arkansas schools.

This smells funny

* Economic development money to send to a private Massachusetts company — presumably without going through a state procurement procedure?

* $800,000 the same day money was turned down for special education? When they turned down more parole officers? The same day they voted to send $5 million or so to private schools in the form of a richer tax benefit than provided by the federal legislation the state change was supposed to merely mimic? (When the feds expanded the savings program for higher education to include K-12 savings account for private school tuitition, it DID not allow contributions to the programs to be tax-deductible. Sen. Jason Rapert's voucher plan for private schools does precisely that in Arkansas, $5,000 a year plus tax exemption on account earnings.)

* Gov. Hutchinson vetoed this panic button expenditure in 2017. If schools want panic buttons, they can pay for them, he said. Now our economic development seed corn is being spent up. (The Rave Panic Button is a cell phone app, by the way. Punch a button and it dials emergency responders. Yes, butt dialing is a problem.)

* Favoring one particular Massachusetts vendor of a panic button without full inquiry sounds a whole lot like somebody hired the right lobbyist. Wouldn't you know, Rave Mobile, maker of this app, employs Mullenix and Associates. Ted and Julie Mullenix have made many friends over the years by underwriting free eats and drinks for lawmakers, sometimes with creative new schemes around the nominal prohibition on free swill in the Arkansas Constitution.

* Would a fuller inquiry be worthwhile before sending economic development money to benefit a single company from out of state? It might be worth hearing a response to this criticism from a supposed security expert lambasting the system.  He claims the system can be hacked to make false reports and mislead responders.  Fox 16's Marci Manley turned up complaints with the implementation of the "Smart911" system operated by the same company.

As with the special language hurryup approval of a school voucher program, 11th-hour approval of special pleading for a private company rarely serves the public interest. But sometimes which lobbyists you know is more important. Didn't hurt to have Sen. Jim Hendren, the governor's nephew and Senate leader, backing the measure.


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