Opinion

OPINION | GREG HARTON: Clash between Gov. Sanders, prison board rooted in a big moment of University of Arkansas history

The University of Arkansas is in the middle of a controversy involving Gov. Sarah Sanders. That's probably news to the UA. More on that later.

As for Sanders, it appears she has a problem with authority. I mean, other people's authority.

Last week, the state's Board of Corrections stood up to the Sanders administration's push to dictate how the state prisons are operated.

It was in March that Sanders, newly elected, announced her $470 million-plus plan to build a new prison as part of adding 3,000 prison beds. Her criminal justice overhaul also includes requiring those convicted of the most violent felonies to serve the entirety of their prison sentences. That will undoubtedly spike demand for prison space, given the overcrowding that already exists.

It takes a while to build a new prison. In the interim, Sanders and her secretary of the Department of Correction, Joe Profiri, intend to open new beds at existing prisons. Sanders appointed Profiri, a native Arizonan and former deputy director in that state's prison system, among her first items of business when she became governor. The Board of Corrections quickly confirmed him.

So how did it come about that the Board of Corrections voted 3-2 Thursday to suspend Profiri with pay, with board member William "Dubs" Byers accusing Profiri of showing "public disdain" for the board's authority? Simple: The board's members aren't convinced the governor's plan to add beds at existing prison facilities can be done safely. Board Chairman Benny Magness said those facilities are overcrowded and understaffed as it is.

Gov. Sanders said Profiri would move ahead with the expansion anyway, saying all he needs is his authority as her secretary of the Department of Corrections. Profiri pledged to keep working despite the board's suspension.

The problem is the Arkansas Constitution. The people of Arkansas passed Amendment 33 in 1942. It was among several amendments designed to reduce gubernatorial interference in the operation of key agencies for primarily political purposes. After all, governors are temporary while agencies have jobs to do decade after decade.

Amendment 33 and two others are designed to protect members of boards and commissions such as the Game and Fish Commission or the Arkansas Highway Commission, as well as the Board of Corrections. Members of these panels are appointed by governors, but they serve longer terms than the governor -- as much as 10 years on the Highway Commission -- so their deliberations can focus on the long-term mission of the agency more than the political whims of changing gubernatorial administrations.

So what's the UA got to do with this? Only historical involvement, but relevant. Future U.S. Sen. J. William Fulbright became president of the university in 1939. His mother, Roberta, was the influential publisher of the Northwest Arkansas Times in Fayetteville. In the 1940 gubernatorial race, Roberta Fulbright backed incumbent Gov. Carl Bailey, but challenger Homer Adkins won. Upon taking office, Adkins purged the membership of the UA board so that he could orchestrate the firing of J. William Fulbright in an exercise of political vengeance.

The people passed Amendment 33 as a result, hoping to guard the state's institutions, whether involving highways, hunting and fishing or prisons, from heavy-handed political interference.

When the Board of Corrections believes the administration's expansion plans could be dangerous to operation of the state's prison system, does it have standing to prevent those plans from happening? Or can a governor plunge ahead with those plans while ignoring a board the people of Arkansas, through a constitutional amendment, protected from gubernatorial interference?

Where could Sanders have developed this distaste for institutional authority that gets in her way? Ah, it's nothing to worry about, I'm sure. After all, governors only serve four-year terms and are limited to two of them.

That's in the constitution, too.

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