Friday, April 3, 2015

Asa's broken promise: Pork barreling by the Arkansas legislature continues

Posted By on Fri, Apr 3, 2015 at 7:49 AM

Now that the state budget has been adopted, it's worth a review of one of Gov. Asa Hutchinson's broken promises — a promise for which he got high praise but little attention when the plan fall through.

That would be pork barrel spending.

In late January, Hutchinson said his budget didn't have room to continue the pork barrel tradition — ladling out the surplus in the state General Improvement Fund for legislators to divide up in devious ways misty designed to evade the state constitutional restrictions on local interest spending legislation, successfully challenged years ago in a lawsuit by former legislator Mike Wilson.

Conservatives and liberals alike cheered the budget discipline. Liberals also cheered his rollback of a huge capital gains tax break granted in the 2013 legislative session. Whether he intended cynically to use this to leverage passage of an income tax break that omitted the lowest income Arkansans or merely miscalculated legislator power is anyone's guess. But that's another bold initiative bungled, along with his support for legislation to allow privatization of Little Rock schools and along with this week's disastrous outcome in his support of anti-gay legislation pushed on him by the Family Council.

As late as Feb. 13, after a wave of GIF bills were filed, the governor's office reiterated:

The Governor has proposed a balanced budget that uses the current surplus for ongoing state programs and statewide priorities.

But that was then. This week, he said compromise was necessary and he emphasized the statewide nature of some of the spending, while not noting the preponderance of lard.

The final budget gave $10 million each to both the House and Senate for spending as they chose. I couldn't get the Senate to give me their spending plans. Senate President Jonathan Dismang didn't respond to requests for the information. But the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette earlier this week provided this summary:

* $6.3 million will be distributed through the regional Planning and Development Districts and $790,000 through the Department of Rural Services. This is pure, unadulterated pork,  $200,000 per senator. The districts and rural money is distributed as legislators dictate. Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson used his from 2013 to pay for a Benton fireworks show. Recently, we learned that some of the money bought sweatsuits for the North Little Rock High football team.

* $337,000 will go to the University of Arkansas.

* $180,000 will go to Arkansas State University.

* $182,000 will go to the state auditor.

* $175,000 will go to the Economic Development Commission.

* $142,000 will go to Arkansas Tech.

* $125,000 will go to the Aging and Adult Services Division.

* $102,000 will go to the Public Defender Commission.

* $110,000 will go to the Department of Arkansas Heritage.

* $100,000 each will go to the University of Central Arkansas and Arkansas Northeastern College.

The smaller grants on the surface appear to have statewide benefit and outside the court's past pork barreling guidelines, but of course local legislators pushed the campus money (not every college was favored) and it's possible that some of the individual grants through state agencies are further earmarked for specific local projects.

Indeed, the House of Representatives staff provided the complete, detailed and itemized list of GIF allotments, by the specific project to be funded, for both the House and Senate. It shows the amount sought, the executive recommendation and the amount actually received through the legislation.

Here's the comprehensive list of GIF projects.
In summary, the House spent:

* $7 million on development district allotments. Again this is pure pork. The list will show how the money was cut up among the various districts. Those legislators will call the shots on the spending.

* $1 million for senior centers. Again, this is money controlled by individual legislators.

* $1 million for rural fire departments. Again, legislators have great sway on this local spending.

* $1 million for the Hunger Relief Alliance in Little Rock, headed by former legislator Kathy Webb.

That last was a rare action by the legislature of direct benefit to the least among us.

So let there be pork. But a former legislator wants it noted that Hutchinson said this in defending the compromise:

I am pleased that the amount of discretionary general improvement proposed for this biennium would be the lowest amount to be allocated in the last decade.

According to my source's figures, that's not true. In 2011, the legislature got $10 million of a $50 million surplus.

The legislative allotment — against $20 million this year, or about 8 percent of a surplus of around $240 million — was $40 million, or roughly 4 percent of a $915 million surplus in 2007; $60 million , or 12 percent of a $500 million surplus in 2009 and $70 million, or more than 30 percent of a $200 million surplus in 2013.

The governor got $20 million for his own discretionary spending, too. Other sums went to Medicaid, pre-K and other statewide applications.

$90 million to Medicaid program, $40 million to the Public School Academic Facilities and Transportation Division,  $20 million to the Arkansas Economic Development Commission for the Quick-Action Closing Fund , $29.5 million to the Correction Department; for new facilities and leases $15.8 million to the Department of Community Correction; 5 million to the Education Department for computer-science initiatives, and $3 million to the department for the Arkansas Better Chance pre-kindergarten program.

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