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Slicing the pork 

I mentioned last week that Gov. Hutchinson's historic legislation to transfer general revenue to highway construction had one side benefit.

Stingy budgets for all other state agencies will artificially create a "surplus" — really a general revenue funding stream — for highway building.

But, he acknowledges, this use of (cough) "surplus," likely will make it harder for legislators to count on having leftover money to divvy up for their own pet local projects. This might put an end to years of unconstitutional spending of state money on purely local projects.

For years, the legislature ignored the Constitution and passed dozens of spending bills directing state money to legislators' local projects. In 2005, a lawsuit by former state Rep. Mike Wilson of Jacksonville ended that practice. But a new gimmick was developed in 2007. The legislature would divvy up the surplus among legislators — $70,000 for representatives and $285,000 for senators in 2015 — and send a corresponding amount for each legislator to a regional planning and development district. These districts, governed by local elected officials, then spent the money as the legislators directed. It was and is simple money laundering. The effect is precisely the same as the practice struck down earlier, but through an intermediary. Wilson has again sued.

Last week, Wilson filed powerful pleadings urging Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza to end the practice. One not-so-minor technicality is that the state laws establishing the planning districts prohibit them from making grants without local matching funds.

None of the legislator-directed grants have matching funds. The law also requires budgets and audits that are not being done.

The larger issue is the sham process governing $13 million in spending statewide.

Wilson sued the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District because it is the one in which he lives. His research has produced piles of email that illustrate how the regional agency merely serves as banker for legislators.

Email from Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson (R-Little Rock) to CAPDD: "How much money do I have left?"

Emails serve as a checking account. One from Rep. Joe Farrer (R-Austin): "Fund Austin Police Dept., $3,000. Options Pregnancy $2,000. Cabot chamber $2,000. Safe Haven $2,000. CASA $2,000." The Chamber contribution is doubly dubious as an unconstitutional payment of tax money to a private corporation. The others, while perhaps worthy, are nonetheless strictly local projects and unauthorized by state law.

Wilson's lawsuit contains a trove of details of dubious spending. Rep. Mark Lowery (R-Maumelle), for example, bought a $5,000 big-screen TV for the city. He whines about how valuable this money is to fine local agencies that need support. If the city of Maumelle needs a TV, it can tax its citizens to pay for it. If a local food bank does good work, local people by all means should support it. But should state taxpayers favor Maumelle's city council or food bank over others?

Wilson's long list is drawn from only one of eight agencies spending millions on local projects. Sen. Hutchinson paid for a basketball tournament. Rep. Andy Mayberry (R-Hensley) sent money to local parks. Rep. Farrer put up a pole barn for a local FFA chapter in Rose Bud. Sen. Jane English (R-North Little Rock) paid $9,000 for food for a fancy Air Force "gala."

All these expenditures are routinely approved in speedy bundles by the regional commission. The only requirement is a legislator's preapproval. Up in Northwest Arkansas, the money has gone to such diverse and dubious uses as a building for a Bible college and to pay a debt to a grocery wholesaler.

If you have any doubt that this is a purely political exercise, Wilson's lawsuit notes that the Planning District coordinates a check presentation ceremony with the legislator and recipient, including a blown-up check for benefit of the local newspaper photographer.

To summarize: No accountability. No economic benefit. No required statement of purpose in the statute. No constitutional authority. That is your Arkansas legislature at work (now at a greatly increased pay grade). If Asa Hutchinson continues to starve the broader state government for highways, he at least may also be denying a serving of tainted pork to a voracious legislature.

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