Friday, February 27, 2015

EDITORIAL >> How to sue legislators

State legislators continue to violate the recently passed ethics amendment that prohibits lobbyists from offering free meals and booze to lawmakers.

Many legislators keep ignoring the intent of Amendment 94, the lobbying, ethics and term-limits law, which the voters last November passed thinking that lobbyists could no longer entertain lawmakers. The amendment doubled term limits for lawmakers to 16 years and established a pay commission that will greatly increase legislators’ salaries. Ignoring the ethics provision, lobbyists continue to wine and dine politicians under the so-called special events exemption. Citizens groups should file suit against this flagrant violation of the new amendment since the state ethics commission will not stop them.

Lawmakers should also worry about a possible lawsuit that Jacksonville attorney Mike Wilson could re-file against the pork-barrel politics at the state Capitol, so-called General Improvement Funds that funnel millions of dollars for local projects, in obvious violation of the law.

The former state representative told our reporter John Hofheimer he has not yet decided whether to take the matter back to court, which sided with Wilson and declared the practice illegal. He says funding GIF projects amounted to local legislation. A state constitutional amendment says the legislature must attend to statewide issues and may not cut special deals for targeted local communities.

Former state Sen. Bob Johnson (D-Bigelow) had earmarked $400,000 for road improvement in Bigelow, clearly not a statewide need. Wilson believes it’s unconstitutional for the state to do it with the equivalent of local legislation.

Since the court rulings on Wilson’s suit, he says the General Assembly has basically developed a money-laundering scheme, running each legislator’s share through the local planning and development districts. Their recipients of these grants are laughing all the way to the bank.

To date, the board of directors of the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District awarded a total of $9,243,289 from the GIF received through the 89th General Assembly, according to district director Rodney Larson.

Local legislators got funding for 186 transactions worth $6,096,030, according to information provided by CAPPD. They all go for good causes, of course, from local libraries to volunteer fire departments to Civil War battlefields and many other projects.

But as Jim Nickels, the former Sherwood state representative, told Hofheimer, “It takes money away from statewide projects, it ends up local, and we have a prohibition against that.”

Wilson probably could successfully challenge the next round of general improvements funds before they’re handed out to local politicians, who like nothing more than having their pictures taken presenting checks to area recipients.

Should Wilson win for the second time, local prosecutors should consider filing charges against lawmakers who abuse the ban against local improvement grants, as well as those who accept free meals and booze from lobbyists.

If legislators can’t follow the law, why should the rest of us?