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Your Tax Dollars At Work (Gwen Moritz Editor’s Note)

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THIS IS AN OPINION

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Our elected state treasurer, Dennis Milligan, is a get-forgiveness-not-permission kind of guy. Sometimes it works: Republican voters nominated him despite his well-documented effort to bully his much better qualified primary opponent Duncan Baird out of the race. Sometimes it doesn’t work, which is how he ended up paying a $1,000 civil penalty and reimbursing the state for nearly $7,000 in salary paid to the cousin he illegally hired.

So, he assured me last week, if he made a mistake in spending $450,000 of your tax dollars over the next four years on a no-bid contract with a for-profit company from out of state, he’ll straighten it out later. Because, you see, his first priority was fulfilling a campaign promise to tackle financial illiteracy in Arkansas, and that’s what he’s doing with the money.

As anyone who knows me even slightly can attest, financial illiteracy is one of my biggest worries. I even give speeches about it; the Searcy Rotary Club was my captive audience just last week.

Yet when I saw that Milligan had taken it upon himself to buy an online financial education program for fourth-, fifth- and sixth-grade students, I immediately dismissed it as a political publicity stunt — the kind of thing he should have raised private money to do. After talking with him and his assistant chief of staff, Grant Wallace, for an hour, I still think so.

Here’s why:

• Materials from the National Association of State Treasurers suggest that Milligan is just the latest to make financial literacy a political issue.

• Making a campaign promise, even if the promise contributes to one’s ultimate election, does not automatically expand the role of the treasurer as described in state statute, which is basically to invest money the state has on hand until it needs to be spent. As far as I can tell from my interview and from a voluminous Freedom of Information Act request, Milligan’s office did not consult any of the state’s educational agencies about the best way to introduce financial literacy into classrooms.

• The program that Milligan bought from a Washington company called EverFi was already available to more than 20,000 students — mostly high-schoolers — in 38 schools in 25 different school districts. And it’s been paid for by six banks that do business in Arkansas.

Banks, you see, get brownie points under the federal Community Reinvestment Act for promoting financial literacy, and these six banks have chosen to outsource that role by buying access to EverFi for schools in their markets. The Arkansas Bankers Association encourages this; it even gets a commission when Arkansas banks contract with EverFi.

• I’m assured by people familiar with EverFi that it is a quality program. But what Milligan bought is essentially two-and-a-half hours of instruction over several lessons. I’m sure it can’t do kids any harm, but if the campaign promise was to tackle financial illiteracy, this is pretty weak tea. A couple of hours of instruction from the sixth grade will have to be reinforced and built upon in order to become part of one’s fundamental life skills.

• EverFi first pitched lessons for all students K-12, plus some other goodies like financial literacy for state employees, but Milligan’s office rejected that because it was too expensive. I’m not sure how expensive — the first contract was not included in the response to my FOI request — but Wallace said it was well over $1 million. So apparently there was a limit to just how much the treasurer’s office was willing to spend to fulfill his campaign promise. What they bought instead is voluntary access just for three grades in 75 schools this school year and up to 225 schools by the fourth year of the contract. That’s not even all the elementary schools in the state. (Hey, maybe the banks will help with the rest.)

I suggested to Milligan and Wallace that they could use their influence to promote mandatory personal finance education for all public school students. Wallace seemed barely able to contain his horror at my suggestion of yet another government mandate. See, fulfilling the campaign promise that no one asked Dennis Milligan to make is a vital use of your tax dollars, but actually making a long-term commitment to develop a financially literate population — well, that’s just crazy talk.

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Constitutional officers don’t have to bid out anything they buy other than office supplies and printing services, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t allowed to take bids. In the words of a journalist friend, “The first thing I would teach in a financial literacy class is that you should shop around before committing to a purchase.”


Gwen Moritz is editor of Arkansas Business. Email her at GMoritz@ABPG.com.
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