Brummett Online

OPINION | JOHN BRUMMETT: Find light where you can

You look for encouraging developments where you can find them, even to the point of taking heart that Gov. Sarah Sanders deigned to talk that one time with members of the state Corrections Board.

You cling to that positive morsel even amid indications she probably had to do what she did in tactical terms and that it may well have been a one-off development.

She apparently had--and may still have--problems with a significant number of Republican legislators, especially on the Senate side, where her nominee to head the parole board got confirmed without any heads-up to the confirming senators that the nominee had been fired from a Benton police position because of not telling the truth about sex with a 17-year-old.

There were GOP senators who didn't much appreciate that or approve of Sanders' needlessly combative style with the Corrections Board.

Meantime, her appointee to be chairman of the state Republican Party, Joseph Wood, gave an interview to an Arkansas PBS news show last week in which he seemed to give away that Sanders might want the Legislature to vote in the next regular session to refer to the people a proposed constitutional amendment making clear that the Corrections Board doesn't have the power it asserts that it has under Amendment 33, which she believes should be her power.

These problems over prison issues with Republicans in the Senate might impair her chances of getting a legislative agreement to make the referral for a revision of Amendment 33.

Relations were damaged to the point that Attorney General Tim Griffin, who has been Sanders' wing man on her odd war with the prison board, felt he had to meet with the Republican Senate caucus last week. Presumably he briefed senators on the state of litigation pitting the governor against the board largely based on the board's assertion of powers.

I believe the prison board is right. So does a Pulaski County judge. I also believe the Arkansas Supreme Court will find a way to rule otherwise.

And I suspect that Sanders decided she could reap good will in the Senate if she'd talk with prison board members and get their consent to her selection of a new secretary of prisons, a woman who is veteran in prison matters including work as chief of staff to Sanders' appointee who was ousted by the prison board because he insisted he worked for her alone.

I'm fearful that's about as conciliatory as Sanders intends to be or is capable of being.

There seems to be little likelihood that she and Griffin will drop the appeal of the Pulaski Circuit Court ruling siding with the prison board's assertion of authority reserved to it by Amendment 33. And even if she were willing to concede to pay the legal bills of the outside attorney that the prison board hired when Griffin took Sanders' side against it, there is a problem.

Even as some Republican legislators agree that the Corrections Board had little choice but to act logically and constitutionally and look for outside representation, there is the inconvenient matter of there being no clear authority in law or regulation for the board to unilaterally get an outside legal hire paid.

The Corrections Board is not the constitutional office it thinks it is, like the Highway Commission and Game and Fish Commission. It, like the various boards of colleges and universities, has certain authority and responsibility reserved for it by Amendment 33. The governor must honor that role. But it's limited.

Ideally, the prisons would have the benefit of a governor and a board working together for it. But that is the concept Sanders blew up in favor of talking-point news conferences.

The best hope is that Sanders will follow the lead of her tactical overture to the prison board on the secretary choice and start cooperative dialogue on an ongoing basis on how to increase prison capacity and hire the people any expansion will require.

That's at least until she can get Amendment 33 changed to say the Corrections Board is but a toothless advisory group. And she needs to get Republican legislators on her side for that.

John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, is a member of the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame. Email him at [email protected]. Read his @johnbrummett feed on X, formerly Twitter.

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