Private business gets its nose in government's tent: See LR Chamber and Tech Park | Arkansas Blog

Thursday, October 24, 2013

Private business gets its nose in government's tent: See LR Chamber and Tech Park

Posted By on Thu, Oct 24, 2013 at 7:21 AM

PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP: Public pays the tab; private interests call the shots.
  • PUBLIC-PRIVATE PARTNERSHIP: Public pays the tab; private interests call the shots.

I recommend this reporting by the Center for Public Integrity because the ills it highlights are creeping into Arkansas.

It opens with a mention of the Arizona Commerce Authority, a so-called public/private partnership that oversees millions in state corporate incentives and grants. The article continues:

There’s a name for this arrangement. The Commerce Authority is a “quasi-public” entity, or a public-private partnership. About 10 other states have also given control over lucrative corporate tax incentives to similar organizations, which are often run by the states’ most influential businessmen, generally at the pleasure of the governor. Supporters say these partnerships are more nimble than government bureaucracies and are insulated from the vagaries of electoral politics. But both liberal and conservative watchdog groups say the practice takes a government function already prone to mismanagement and obfuscation and makes the situation worse by giving oversight of business incentives to businesses themselves.

For now, the governor of Arkansas and the Economic Development Commission he appoints, hold the reins on much of the state's largesse. The legislature has a say, too, of course.

The AEDC is not wholly transparent, but it is more open than the agencies the article describes.

It also happens that, at a lower level of government, this insidious private annexation of public money and power is well underway.

Take Little Rock. The city gives $200,000 a year to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce (unconstitutionally I believe) to work on economic development. It makes no specific public accounting of how that money is spent. It acknowledges that money pays the salaries of employees who also lobby for corporate agendas.

Little Rock — and other regional governments contribute, too — gives $100,000 to the Metro Little Rock Alliance, yet another cutout for private economic development and corporate agenda advancement work. It is similarly resistant to transparency. Again, the money helps pay the salaries at the Little Rock Chamber, which effectively runs the alliance.

The Chamber raised money to pass a recent city sales tax increase that will produce a half-billion dollars over 10 years. It refused to disclose specifics on how the campaign money was spent. As a reward for its work, the city set aside $22 million for the Little Rock Technology Park, a pet project of influential chamber member Dickson Flake. Years later, the board of that authority— the private Chamber is the only private organization with a designated seat on the board —  finally took steps last night toward finding a rooftop to put some of this poorly defined project under. But the chamber chief executive, Jay Chesshir, though giving the critical deciding vote to a downtown site, tossed a smelly object in the punch bowl by suggesting that consultant Charles Dilks "investigate" the downtown option. Dilks has already made it clear that his idea of the best place to put the tech park is a place Board chair Mary Good and Flake prefer. That is definitely NOT downtown. Prediction: The fight isn't over.

Nor is the fight over for private interests hoping to annex still more of the public's dollars for their pet projects, with a minimum of accountability. The Tech Park has been a hobbled joke as as public agency, with haphazard recordkeeping and sketchy compliance with Freedom of Information Act requests. It has not been an auspicious start for an agency whose only significant commitment of money so far is $22 million in pennies accumulated from the sale of blue jeans, hamburgers, school supplies and other necessities of working people's existence. Given manifest uncertainties about operational issues of this ill-defined project, the chance  that it will be open and accountable when and if it finally begins is not great.

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