Tuesday, November 01, 2016

TOP STORY >> Judge rules state grants aren’t illegal


Leader senior staff writer

Circuit Judge Chris Piazza on Tuesday ruled against former state Rep. Mike Wilson’s suit seeking to prohibit the Central Arkansas Planning and Developing District from approving General Improvement grants and cutting checks to local groups at the direction of lawmakers.

Piazza said, “I find that it is constitutional.”

Wilson said he would appeal to the state Supreme Court.

CAPDD hasn’t approved applications nor written checks since Wilson filed his suit in February, saying the grants violated the state constitution, which prohibits funding local projects with state money.

It wasn’t immediately clear when CAPDD would resume distributing state funds again.

Wilson, a Jacksonville businessman and lawyer, won a similar suit in 2007, upheld by the state Supreme Court, and has charged that lawmakers have since begun laundering the GIF money through the state treasurer’s office and then through the planning and development districts.

But after a 90-minute hearing on competing motions for summary judgment, Piazza ruled the awarding of grants designated by lawmakers under current law is constitutional.

In the suit in which Wilson prevailed in 2007, individual appropriations were written to fund local libraries, Boys and Girls Clubs, buy equipment for volunteer fire departments and for other local uses. While Wilson said they often are for good causes, they are nonetheless illegal.

Defendants in Wilson’s suit are Larry Walther, director of the Arkansas Department of Finance and Administration, Andrea Lea, state auditor and Dennis Milligan, state treasurer and Central Arkansas Planning and Development District, Inc.

He seeks to recover the money for the state.

Each lawmaker would have an equal share of the general improvement funds from which to make appropriations.

Under what Wilson calls “a work-around,” the General Assembly decided that each representative could endorse $70,000 worth of grants through the planning and development district and each state senator, $285,000.

But Assistant Attorney General Colin Jorgensen argued that the uses of the money and the details of CAPDD’s awarding GIF grants were not material to the case.

Sam Jones, representing CAPDD and its director, Rodney Larsen, said the General Assembly had to change the process for distributing GIF funds after Wilson won his case in 2007.

The issue is whether or not the actions of the state and the CAPDD comply with the statutes that currently control expenditure of GIF funds, Jones said.

The new method of distributing “excess” state revenues through grants administered by the CAPDD is constitutional, Piazza said.

Jorgensen has written an order for the judge, and Wilson and his attorney John Ogles are currently assessing it.

Judd Deere, spokesman for the attorney general’s office, said once all the attorneys have approved it, Piazza would sign it, probably Wednesday afternoon.

Larsen said he’d like to recover about $40,000 in attorney’s fees from the plaintiff.