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Arkansas lawmakers on Tuesday agreed to wait until next month to vote on whether to grant $627,500 to Arkansas PBS in order to fund the final year of a three-year workforce development program provided by Linkedln.
The publicly funded educational channel has been under legislative scrutiny for months since the state’s regularly scheduled fiscal year 2022 audit of the agency revealed what auditors considered questionable purchasing practices. The Legislative Joint Auditing Committee authorized a fresh audit in November to examine more than two years of “procurements and related processes” at the agency.
The nonpartisan Arkansas Legislative Audit recently finished the regularly scheduled fiscal year 2023 audit of Arkansas PBS and is expected to start the other audit soon, the broadcaster’s chief financial officer Karen Watkins told the Arkansas Legislative Council’s Performance Evaluation and Expenditure Review subcommittee on Tuesday.
Watkins and Arkansas PBS CEO Courtney Pledger have both defended the agency’s integrity and said they have been working to train their staff on proper procurement procedures. Watkins said Tuesday that the agency has “just completed a procurement guide for internal training that will be distributed this week.”
Pledger was not present at Tuesday’s meeting. Rep. Jeff Wardlaw, R-Hermitage, took issue with Pledger’s absence and made the motion to hold the agenda item until next month’s PEER meeting in anticipation of Pledger being able to appear.
Watkins told the subcommittee that Pledger has been ill for two weeks, and Sen. Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock, said she believed Pledger’s absence should be excused.
“I’m concerned when the rigidity becomes so great that we don’t even look at the fact that someone might not be able to be here,” Chesterfield said.
Wardlaw disagreed, saying Pledger’s absence should not be excused since she has not always attended legislative meetings to make financial requests when she has not been ill. He pointed out that Watkins signed the request letter to the state budget office in Pledger’s stead.
“It’s been blatant that [Pledger] does not respect the process in the past,” Wardlaw said. “She’s had multiple times to be here and multiple times to be present.”
In August, lawmakers tabled a potential merit pay raise for Pledger, citing the lack of resolution of the findings in the 2022 audit. Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Jonesboro, encouraged the Legislative Joint Auditing Committee to table the proposed raise.
Last year, Sullivan proposed an appropriations bill for Arkansas PBS that would have cut 25% of its budget, according to the Arkansas Times. The bill died in the Joint Budget Committee.