Monday, June 11, 2007

TOP STORY >>Who eats crow after decision on funds?

Former Rep. Mike Wilson (D-Jacksonville) was having dinner with his brother-in-law Friday night as they faced each other over victuals they considered appropriate for the occasion — eating crow or dark squirrel meat.

They have been on opposite sides over a state-funding issue that Wilson brought to a halt after he filed suit to stop the state Legislature from funding local projects, including money for a new Jacksonville library.

The Supreme Court on Thursday not only stopped direct funding for the library, but also for a local military museum and civil war battlefield.

Bobby Roberts, Wilson’s brother-in-law, heads the Central Arkansas Library System, which is building Jacksonville’s new library, but without the extra money the Legislature appropriated under the General Improvement Fund.

Since Wilson went to court to stop funding local pet projects, the Legislature has revised the system and is instead sending money to state agencies to disburse the funds, which both the courts and Wilson seem to think is appropriate, but still nothing for the library or the others.

“The worst part is having to eat crow,” said Roberts after the Supreme Court ruling. Roberts and Wilson had previously planned the family dinner set for last night. Wilson hinted that in lieu of crow, he might serve up a black squirrel he had shot for his brother-in-law.

“I had discounted that money a long time ago,” Roberts said. “But anytime you take $190,000 out of a project, you’d rather have it than not.”

“The (library money was) never figured in,” said Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim. “Nothing will be removed from the library,” he said. “There would have been something extra.”

The money for projects Wilson challenged would have included $190,000 toward the new Esther D. Nixon Library; $10,000 for the Jacksonville Museum of Military History; and $10,000 for the Reed’s Bridge (Civil War)Preservation Society. The Sup-reme Court ruled that the General Improvement Funds the 2005 General Assembly earmarked for the new Jacksonville library, the Jacksonville Military Museum and the Reed’s Bridge Civil War battle site were unconstitutional and won’t be disbursed.
Wilson sued in October 2005 to prevent funding of those and a handful of other projects, claiming that the appropriations amounted to local legislation, a violation of the 14th Amendment of the state constitution.

Pulaski County Circuit Judge Willard Proctor ruled mostly against Wilson, but the Supreme Court overturned Proctor in its ruling announced Thursday.

“I said those acts were unconstitutional and the court agreed,” Wilson told The Leader.

Wilson said he was satisfied by the new mechanism the 2007 General Assembly has put in place to funnel money for use around the state, “depending on what happens as of July I, when the money is actually transferred. He said he was confident that Gov. Mike Beebe understood the court decisions and would act accordingly. The 2005 legislators carved up about $52 million for what Wilson called pork-barrel projects.

Most of the half-dozen earmarks Wilson sued to prevent were for projects in state Rep. Will Bond’s Jacksonville district. Bond is also his former law partner.

“The legislature has changed its way of handling General Improvement money,” Bond said Thursday. “Those funds were not reappropriated for 2007. The money will be used elsewhere.”

While stopping far short of thanking Wilson—former law partners, the two split over the suit—Bond did say he thinks the new method is a better way of handling the state’s money.”

“We put some in General Improvement Funds and increased the amounts of turnback funds to cities and counties,” Bond said. “We also appropriated money to all domestic violence centers and senior centers in the state.”

The General Assembly also made money available to all fire departments, and the governor will send $1.7 million to state libraries, restoring a cut that was made in 1996.

Supporters of the Reed’s Bridge battle site and the military museum hope to raise funds through a local restaurant tax.
The court also upheld the Pulaski County court’s ruling that $10,000 appropriated for the Jacksonville Boys and Girls Club and $20,000 for “state assistance” to Jacksonville violated the local projects ban.

Justices last year ruled that $400,000 appropriated for street improvements in Bigelow ran afoul of the Constitution. In response to that ruling, lawmakers reworked the way projects were funded using the General Improvement Fund. After roughly half of the surplus was set aside for a program to repair school buildings and other projects were funded, the House and Senate each received $20 million to distribute.

Money for projects was equally divided among the 35 senators, while the 100-member House chose to channel the money toward existing state agencies to be distributed throughout the state.

Some of the senators also chose to channel their share through state agencies, while others chose projects they deemed were large enough to qualify for surplus funding. Some legislators chose to distribute the money to state agencies after Gov. Beebe had vetoed a handful of bills funding local projects. Sponsors of the rejected bills said they planned to lobby the state agencies to fund their specific projects, but acknowledged there was no guarantee money would be allocated to them.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.