Sunday, December 17, 2006

TOP STORY >>Projects in peril in wake of ruling

IN SHORT: High Court agrees with Wilson against General Improvement Funds, but others say “not so fast.”

Leader staff writer

Jacksonville attorney and former state Rep. Mike Wilson says a state Supreme Court ruling Thursday puts an end to the practice of state legislators divvying up General Improvement Fund money for pork projects back in their home districts.

While the ruling found unconstitutional an act appropriating $400,000 for road improvements for the city of Bigelow, Wilson thinks it has state-wide implications. No more volunteer fire departments, libraries, community centers or jails singled out for money—at least not from the General Improvement Fund, according to Wilson, who filed the suit to stop the Bigelow appropriation and several in the Jacksonville area.

Circuit Judge Willard Proctor ruled over the summer that money for the Bigelow streets and for Jacksonville’s Museum of Military History, the senior center, the Reed’s Bridge Preservation Society and toward a new Jackson-ville public library were constitutional.

Wilson appealed each of those, but the Supreme Court ruled only on the Bigelow case, noting that Proctor had not entered a final order on the others and that it refrains from considering appeals before such an order has been entered.
The Supreme Court upheld Wilson’s contention that the Bigelow appropriation constituted “special and local legislation,” a violation of Amendment 14 of the state Constitution.

Asked if the Bigelow ruling indicated how the Supreme Court would rule on the other cases, Wilson said, “Absolutely. I can’t make a distinction.

“It should stop once and for all the raids on slush fund, pork barrel type acts and legislation,” Wilson added.

“I thought it was important to get this decided before it gets very far into the (January legislative) session,” Wilson said.
That’s why he waived oral arguments, fearing that would delay a decision until late January.

Wilson says General Improve-ment Funds are not appropriate for projects unless they benefit the entire state and he would like the matter settled before members of the new state Legislature begin dividing up a new surplus pie at the end of the new session.

Not everyone, including the attorney general’s office, thinks that the decision spells doom for GIF projects. State Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, disagrees with Wil-son’s assessment.

He said the court limited its reversal to the Bigelow money, finding it local in nature, but used the lack of a final order on the other cases as a procedural way to avoid ruling on the other projects.

Bond, who was Wilson’s law partner until they split over the GIF lawsuits, says Wilson is naive if he believes lawmakers wouldn’t find other ways to channel money to volunteer fire departments, libraries, jails, community centers and other projects.

Bond was responsible for much of the $190,000 in GIF funds earmarked for the Jacksonville library.
He says he believes the library would meet the test of not being local legislation.

He said it was important, however, for lawmakers to take care of funding state business, such as adequacy of school facilities, before they start trying to break off chunks of GIF money for projects back home.

Reversing Proctor’s Bigelow ruling, Supreme Court Associate Justice Robert L. Brown wrote that the state had no compelling interest in the appropriation to improve Bigelow roads in the name of tourism and safety.

Wilson asserted in his challenge that “there is absolutely no legitimate reason for selecting the city of Bigelow for special treatment in the form of $400,000 in taxpayer funds for these purposes.”

Wilson also sued to prohibit GIF funds from being used for the new Jacksonville library and several other projects, including the Jacksonville Senior Center, the Museum of Military History and the Reed’s Bridge Preservation Society.

He said they also amounted to special and local legislation, and he filed suit in September 2005 to prohibit Richard Weiss, director of the state Department of Finance and Administration, from writing the checks.

The state attorney general’s office has defended Weiss and DF&A in this suit. Spokesman Matt DeCample said it was too early to know if the Bigelow decision spelled doom for the Jacksonville-area projects or the entire GIF funding of local projects throughout the state.

Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim said Friday that the Bigelow ruling won’t necessarily affect $190,000 earmarked toward construction of the new Jacksonville library.

But even if the city library loses the $190,000, the $2 million-plus library—funded by a voter-approved bond issue—will be built regardless. he said.

“One significant difference (from Bigelow), our library is part of a system involving more than just a single city. Central Arkansas Library System is in at least two counties. It’s a big system, not just local,” the mayor pointed out.
Swaim said if the city doesn’t get the GIF money, it may reduce the size of the library or reduce the cost in some other fashion.

Statewide, legislators appropriated $52 million in General Improvement Funds last year.

Lonoke County, for instance, got $300,000 in GIF funds from state Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, state Rep. Lenville Evans, D-Lonoke and state Rep. Susan Prater, R-Cabot, for a new jail, and County Judge Charlie Troutman has said he is hoping for a similar amount this year to complete that and other projects.