Friday, February 12, 2016

TOP STORY >> Lawsuit to stop money trough

Leader senior staff writer

Jacksonville attorney Mike Wilson filed suit against state officials Friday charging that lawmakers are using planning and development districts to launder state general improvement funds and send the money to local projects and entities in the districts of those state representatives and senators.

While Wilson said they often are for good causes, they are nonetheless illegal.

He is suing defendants Larry Walther, director of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration; Andrea Lea, state auditor; Dennis Milligan, state treasurer; and the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District.

He seeks to recover the money for the state.

Wilson wants the money returned to the state.

The suit was assigned Friday to Circuit Judge Chris Piazza.

In 2005, Wilson, himself a former state representative, filed a similar suit holding that state law prohibits using GIF money for local projects.

That money can be used for statewide education, for instance, but can’t be earmarked for particular schools or volunteer fire departments or boys and girls clubs or tornado shelters.

General improvement funds are “left-over” money and before Pulaski County Circuit Judge Willard Proctor found them illegal—and the state Supreme Court upheld his ruling—all representatives got a certain amount to spend on projects for their constituents and it would generally be approved in one big bill by both the House and the Senate.

The money helped endear lawmakers to their constituents, an advantage when re-election time rolled around.

Now the money is appropriated to the Planning and Development Districts, including the one for central Arkansas. Those wanting the money apply for it and the district doles it out with the permission of the lawmaker in question.

Wilson’s original case, filed in 2005 found direct appropriations from the General Assembly unconstitutional.

Today it’s done by subterfuge through Planning and Development Districts, Wilson said. “It’s an indirect masking device.”

“As a means of avoiding the Constitutional prohibition against local and special acts, members of the General Assembly have joined in unlawful concert with Defendant Central Arkansas Planning and Development District, Inc. and other Planning and Development Districts, in a scheme or artifice whereby appropriations of tax funds are made to the Planning and Development Districts, which privately contact by telephone individual members of the House and Senate for approval of “grants” to favored local projects. No public records of those private communications are kept,” according to Wilson’s complaint.

Currently, state representatives are allowed to fund $70,000 while state senators are allowed $285,000.

“Acts 626, 818, 612, 551, 619, 514, 786 and 654 of 2015 in total purport to appropriate $15,000,000 from the General Improvement Fund for ‘grants’ to ‘Central Arkansas Economic Development District, Inc.’ No purpose of the appropriations are distinctly stated, contrary to Art. 5, § 29 of the Arkansas Constitution,” according to the suit.