Monday, March 2, 2015

Mike Wilson again raises alarm over pork spending

Posted By on Mon, Mar 2, 2015 at 1:41 PM

Mike Wilson, a Jacksonville lawyer and former legislator who filed a lawsuit that won an Arkansas Supreme Court decision curtailing pork barrel spending by the legislature, is on the warpath  because the legislature is up to its old tricks.

Wilson won a court ruling that the practice of dividing up surplus among legislators for pet projects — a rodeo arena here, a history museum grant there — amounted to unconstitutional local legislation.

But the legislature has found a way around that, with distributions to state agencies and regional planning and development districts that then split up the money according to local legislative wishes. We wrote last year about Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson directing money to a Saline County fireworks show. Last week, thanks to an unrelated controversy, we learned Rep. Eddie Armstrong had directed money to football team warmups at North Little Rock High School.

Wilson isn't happy. He wrote a letter to the editor worth broadcasting as the legislative hopper fills with General Improvement Fund spending bills. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has said he won't fall for the GIF routine. Writes Wilson:

Our General Assembly will soon decide the distribution of millions of taxpayer dollars known as the General Improvement Fund,m historically utilized for major capital projects at colleges and universities around the state and other statewide needs, but currently dribbled out through the subterfuge of "grants" ostensibly made by various state agencies and Planning and Development Districts, but actually at the direction of individual legislators to their pet local uses. quietly and with no attention from the media, each individual member is allocated a "share" of the GIF to "spend" as he or she sees fit, usually in his or her particular district. These "shares" are zealously guarded and treated as if they were personal property of the individual members, with no accountability for their proper use — no more than private slush funds essentially diverted to re-election campaigns.

This current practice has grown over the last several years to surreptitiously avoid the prohibition in our Constitution outlawing local and special acts giving away public funds without specifying a public purpose or providing accountability for the expenditure of the funds. Our Supreme Court unanimously prohibited such acts as recently as six years ago.

No doubt a small fraction of this GIF is directed to a few programs with merit or benefit to all state taxpayers. Most is not. Instead, some communities are blessed as more equal than others similarly situated with pressing needs for schools, public safety, technology, education, public health and so on. To his great credit, Governor Hutchinson has publicly announced his intention to properly utilize the GIF for statewide purposes in his budget proposals.

But in the last few days of this session there will be brought immense pressure from addicted senators and representatives to set aside major portions of the GIF to local uses cleverly disguised as "grants." These diversions will be hidden in numerous appropriation bills not reported in the press but summarized in the Fund Distribution Act where the appropriations are actually funded while the taxpayers sleep unaware.

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