Tuesday, October 10, 2017

EDITORIAL >> Court: Stop thievery now

Thanks to Mike Wilson’s General Improvement Fund lawsuit, $923,086 of taxpayers’ money seems headed back from the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District in Lonoke to the state treasury.

The bad news is that money had been earmarked for projects championed by central Arkansas lawmakers, and some will miss it dearly.

In the old days, politicians sending money for bridges, parks, clubs and other local projects was called pork, and Wilson, the former state legislator, lawyer and Jacksonville businessman, says it’s still pork.

For the second time in a decade, the state Supreme Court has upheld Wilson’s contention that it is unconstitutional for lawmakers to direct state revenues to local projects.

He said running the state revenues through the development district before lawmakers direct it to local projects was money laundering, plain and simple. If you remember the old school yard flea-flicker pass, well, it’s kind of like that.

Wilson said “surplus” money, as GIF is known, could be reserved for the governor’s Rainy Day Fund or Quick Action Fund or, for instance, given to an agency that oversees fire departments or water projects.

After the 2015 budget, lawmakers directed about $2.9 million to each of the state’s eight planning and development districts, and because Wilson lives in central Arkansas his suit and the subsequent ruling directly affected CAPDD only. By agreement, each state representative could control distribution of $70,000 and each state senator controlled $285,000.

But the precedent is now established by the state’s highest court that lawmakers and development districts and the state can no longer do business that way.

While finding the practice clearly unconstitutional, the Supreme Court on Thursday remanded the case back to Circuit Judge Chris Piazza’s Court. Rodney Larsen, director of CAPDD, hopes Piazza will rule that remaining money can be spent on the projects for which the district, at the behest of lawmakers, intended it.

No way! Wilson says. He believes the money must be returned to the state treasury.

Initially, Wilson wanted all the grant recipients to return the other approximately $2 million awarded, but he has conceded that would create too great a hardship on the grantees, who didn’t have sufficient money to begin with.

It seems clear that the state must find some way to support the worthy ventures that have received GIF grants in the past.

As a culture, and a poor one at that, we cannot chili-supper our way out of financial difficulty for Boys and Girls Clubs, volunteer fire departments, public schools, battered women’s shelters, community centers and such.

We could wash cars till the streams run dry and not afford “new” used fire trucks for volunteer departments that cover most of Arkansas.

Wilson’s lawsuits have not always been well received, even by members of his own family. In the first suit, concluded in 2007, his victory meant that grants ended for Reed’s Battlefield on old Jacksonville highway, which is popular in his family. It stopped money headed for the Central Arkansas Library, until recently headed by Bobby Roberts, his brother-in-law.

Some people think lawmakers will look for yet another end run to control the surplus funds to the benefit of their constituents and perhaps their re-election chances.

Meanwhile, the FBI has pulled back the curtain on a series of alleged kickbacks and self-dealing through GIF grants by lawmakers or former lawmakers so far only in the Springdale or Fort Smith areas, although some familiar with the investigation expect even more indictments.

At least one has pleaded guilty to fraud and others are teetering on the brink of the abyss.

Wilson said he was unaware of the thievery and kickbacks when he filed his suit.

He just wants the state lawmakers to abide by state law. Is that asking too much?