More Little Rock corporate welfare and its role in city governance | Arkansas Blog

Sunday, December 9, 2018

More Little Rock corporate welfare and its role in city governance

Posted By on Sun, Dec 9, 2018 at 9:31 AM

click to enlarge TAXPAYER HANDOUT COMING: For Little Rock chamber executives.
  • TAXPAYER HANDOUT COMING: For Little Rock chamber executives.
Coming business for the Little Rock City Board this month is a renewal of the $300,000 "contract" with the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce to provide "economic development consulting services."

I wish this piece of business would await Frank Scott's arrival, because I'd like to hear him have a say at a public meeting about how this money is used and the amount of accountability the taxpaying citizens of Little Rock get in return. A strong mayor might also question the chamber officials closely about some of their past and future political endeavors.

You should know the story by now: Chambers around the state cooked up a scheme to annex tax money to support their operations rather than depending on membership dues. The practice spread statewide despite a prohibition in the state Constitution against lavishing tax money on such private enterprises. A lawsuit successfully ended the handouts. Then the felonious Sen. Jon Woods cooked up an "economic development" amendment that included a little ol' hidden clause to legalize taxpayer subsidies of chambers of commerce. Voters approved. And here we are. The gravy train was restored in Little Rock and elsewhere.

In Little Rock, your sales tax pennies on the necessities of life help pay the salaries of private chamber employees — their work is beyond the reach of the Freedom of Information Act — who do no more than they ever did, try to recruit businesses. They also lobby for political causes  advantageous to businesses that many taxpayers would prefer not to support — against unions, against government-subsidized health coverage, in favor of state takeover of the school system, against the minimum wage increase, against meaningful workers compensation coverage, building ever-wider concrete gashes to speed people out of Little Rock to suburban cities and so on.

Dutifully, the chamber hands out a publicity sheet each year claiming great economic advancement, but virtually no precise account of actual specific work for the city of Little Rock "contract.” And it would be even greater, they intimate, if only the taxpayers would pay more. $20 million for a real estate play downtown in the name of a "tech park" is an example of one handout the chamber sold to the City Board. Millions in sales taxes and bond issues to subsidize the Little Rock Port is another.

Frank Scott is less of a change agent in this area than he has promised to be. He supports the I-30 concrete gulch through downtown. He's been a banker and highway commissioner. He supports the chamber welfare payments and proclaims the benefits of "public-private partnerships." Too often, however, that phrase means public money to increase profit margins for private operators who are presumed to trickle down their success on the rest of us. It also means not knowing the extent of promises and representations made to potential companies about our community. What, you wonder, was the chamber telling people about Little Rock schools when it was working for state takeover on account of their supposed failure?

Scott's outlook might be tempered somewhat by the significant business establishment support — not including highway contractors — who backed Baker Kurrus' candidacy for mayor.  It ought also to be tempered by a look around. While the suburban cities in Central Arkansas have experienced extraordinary growth in recent decades, Little Rock has been static, with a deterioration of inner city neighborhoods and public schools thanks at least in part to strategies championed by the business establishment.

The continued chamber handout is to come up Tuesday for placement on the Dec. 18 Board meeting. At least they aren't asking this year for an increase in their corporate welfare payment.

PS: The chamber has been a major backer of the current government form with three at-large city directors and seven ward representatives. Money tends to control the at-large elections and money means the business establishment. Scott indicated during the election campaign that he favors ward-only representation. But he was quoted in a John Brummett column today modifying that earlier stance with a potential openness to some multi-member "super" districts such as Memphis uses. That IS NOT ward representation. Depending on how the super districts are drawn, it could just produce the same arithmetic — a majority of seats controlled by higher income neighborhoods.

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