(The Center Square) - The Arkansas Legislative Council did not have the authority to rescind almost $500 million in COVID-relief funds, according to Gov. Asa Hutchinson.
The ALC voted Thursday to rescind the allocation from the American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund approved in June. It instead recommended school districts pay teachers a $5,000 bonus, classified staff a $2,500 bonus and part-time staff members half of what their full-time counterparts receive with the money.
The motion made by Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, requires the school districts to create a bonus plan and submit it to the state Department of Education. The DOE would bring the plans before the ALC-PEER subcommittee. Any school district that did not use the money for bonuses would have to explain why they did not. The committee also approved more than $42.4 million that was already spent from the $500 million allocation.
The ALC's actions are "contrary to the Council’s statutory authority and contrary to the principles of separation of powers underlying the Arkansas Revenue Stabilization Act," Hutchinson said in a news release.
"I am disappointed by the Legislative Council’s vote to rescind its approval to give the Arkansas Department of Education authority to spend $500 million in American Rescue Plan’s Elementary and Secondary Schools Emergency Relief Fund." the governor said. "Just as the General Assembly could not recall a bill from my desk that had already been signed into law, ALC may not undo the lawful appropriations under Act 199 through a parliamentary maneuver."
The move could keep some Arkansas teachers from getting bonuses, Hutchinson said.
"I am concerned that teachers in some districts will get a bonus, but others may not, Hutchinson said. "The creative approach by the committee today while well-intentioned is not the best approach to helping our teachers."
The vote comes as some lawmakers and the Arkansas Education Association are calling on lawmakers to include teacher pay raises in an Aug. 8 special session to decide how to spend $1.6 billion in surplus from fiscal year 2022.
Sen. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, called Thursday's vote a "bait and switch" tactic to avoid discussing pay raises.
"Teachers deserve a raise right now," Elliott said in a Twitter post after the meeting. "A bonus is not a raise. Stay focused on and keep fighting for what you deserve. Today’s vote was a choice to do the least possible and hope you will go away."
Lawmakers were greeted by members of the AEA as they entered the capitol building for the meeting. The AEA is conducting what it calls a "grassroots" effort to encourage the Legislature to consider teacher pay raises.
"The way our state spends public dollars reflects our values,' the organization said in a Facebook post. "What could be more important than making sure our children have the state’s top talent running their classrooms?"