LITTLE ROCK (AP) — Arkansas lawmakers have formally adjourned this year's session after giving final approval to legislation that would change the way Little Rock can try to change the city's form of government.
The House and Senate on Wednesday adjourned the session that began in January.
Lawmakers are set to meet again next year for a session focusing primarily on the state's budget.
Before adjourning, the Senate voted 31-1 for a bill that would allow the Little Rock Board of Directors to ask voters to change from a city manager form of government to a mayor-council model. Previously, such a proposal could only be sought by petition.
The measure now goes to Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
The bills lawmakers approved this year include Hutchinson's income tax cut proposal and a highway funding plan.
Hutchinson also recently signed into law one of the newspaper industry’s most critical items of legislation to emerge from the 2019 General Assembly, a bill ensuring newspapers remain the principal source for public notices. Act 1075 establishes that Arkansas’s cities, counties and public school districts must use newspaper public notices when soliciting competitive bids for construction projects.
The Act, which originated as Senate Bill 409 by Sen. Scott Flippo, R-Mountain Home, as initially drafted would have made newspaper publication an option for such notices along with websites and construction trade journals.
The compromise final bill eliminates the choice of the three, thus requiring cities, counties and schools to publish bid notices for at least two consecutive weeks in newspapers. If the entities would like to also post the notices on websites or in construction trade journals, they may do so.
“For transparency and for wide readership, newspapers have been and continue to be the best place to disseminate public notices,” said Ashley Wimberley, executive director of the Arkansas Press Association.
“We conveyed that message week after week to the Legislature and to entities that support local governments, and were successful in working toward legislation that actually strengthens current law and enhances transparency in our state.” Before Act 1075, cities, counties and schools could place construction-bid notices in either a newspaper or a trade journal. The new law eliminates a choice between newspapers and trade journals.
Instead, the act specifies that “the county, municipality, school district or other local taxing unit shall have first published notice of its intention to receive bids one time each week for not less than two consecutive weeks in a newspaper of general circulation published in the county in which the proposed improvements are to be made.”
In addition to that publication, the entity may also publish in a trade journal or on one of three websites selected for the purpose of receiving electronic submission of bids. Cities, counties and school districts argued for the original version of SB 409 because they wanted the option to receive construction bids electronically and because they said they could direct vendors to bid notices on websites without having to spend money for newspaper notices.
They cited efficiency and economics. Wimberley and Arkansas Democrat-Gazette President Lynn Hamilton, on the other hand, testified in a Senate committee the original bill that gave authority to publish on any website would greatly limit the public’s right to know.
Wimberley and Hamilton explained how newspapers play an essential and important role in notifying the public about how its tax dollars are spent, and how Arkansas still lags other states in broadband Internet access.
“In a democratic society, we can’t trade transparency for efficiency,” Wimberley said. “This bill would have done that if not for a broad coalition of our members expressing their concerns and encouraging the Legislature to find the right resolution to this issue.
“While Act 1075 is a much better outcome for our newspapers, we cannot be complacent in coming months. We fully expect legislation in the next General Assembly that would make it easier for public entities to circumvent thorough public notice publication in the name of ‘efficiency.’”
To rebut those future efforts, Wimberley said the APA will be convening a committee soon to study the delivery of public notices and how the newspaper industry remains the primary vehicle for such notices. Newspapers must acknowledge it is a time of transition, Wimberley said, but the newspaper industry should be confident in its historical role in public notice publication.
The new committee will be charged with identifying ways to handle the transition. For instance, it’s important to continue to let policymakers know the APA publishes a searchable online database of Arkansas public notices as added value for running notices in newspapers. I
n addition to strengthening the newspaper public notice requirement, Act 1075 establishes a process for cities, counties and schools to choose a website where they could receive electronic bids.
The state Office of Procurement will select three website vendors the entities could choose from. Compliance with the process will be overseen by a Public Works Committee comprised of the state procurement director, APA executive director, executive director of the Association of Arkansas Counties, president of the Arkansas Municipal League and the executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators.
If entities were to choose an online vendor and accept electronic bids, the entity must first publish in a local newspaper its intent to receive electronic bids and the website it will use to receive the bids. That notice must be published for five weeks.