Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

FROM THE PUBLISHER>> Developer determined to win over legislature

BY GARRICK FELDMAN

If you walk into a fancy restaurant in Little Rock, chances are you’ll see a bunch of dark suits entertaining groups of legislators in light polyester sport coats with shirt collars open and ties loose.

Lobbyists from Deltic Timber are among the special interests entertaining our citizen-legislators, and they will let Deltic pollute Lake Maumelle in return for free food and booze, and the public be damned.

Deltic needs the support of legislators because it hates the idea of Central Arkansas Water controlling development near the lake. CAW has made Lake Maumelle the centerpiece of an ambitious project that would meet the region’s water needs for the next half-century.

CAW has the right of eminent domain around the lake, thus preventing future development that would jeopardize the water supply.

This is an old legal concept that protects the public interest: We cannot let developers pollute an important water source for our growing region, which needs a dependable supply of clean water.

Lake Maumelle is that source, but pollution would result if you let Deltic build a couple hundred million-dollar homes there.

This is the reason why Central Arkansas Water has been dead set against the development, and so is virtually every central Arkansas legislator whose communities rely on Lake Maumelle for water.

But Deltic has several tricks up its sleeves. It can pressure the board of CAW into a compromise over the proposed development when no compromise is justified. Lake Maumelle doesn’t need a subdivision anymore than it needs a pig farm.

Deltic has such economic muscle that it could win this battle in the long run, or even in the short run if it can convince CAW commissioners, who meet Thursday in Little Rock, that a compromise might not be a bad idea after all. But the professionals at the water utility oppose any compromise with Deltic.

While trying an end-run around Central Arkansas Water, Deltic convinced the state Senate last month to strip CAW of its right to control development at the lake. Deltic is also working on the state House, where a committee headed by Rep. Will Bond (D-Jacksonville) will hold a hearing March 23 on Deltic’s development plans.

Bond says he’ll give both sides a fair shake, but he believes this is a case where “the needs of the many outweigh the wants of the few.”

Talk about corporate irresponsibility.

Deltic might even pick the next Speaker of the Arkansas House, preferring Rep. Benny Petrus (D-Stuttgart) over Bond, who says he’ll seek the post in two years.

Deltic and its friends in the legislature recently had a big bash at Petrus’ Little Rock pad, with lots of food and beverages for everybody.

Even if Deltic doesn’t have the votes in the House right now, it will find more support during the next session as more experienced legislators leave because of term limits and more amateurs in bright polyester suits show up at the state Capitol, willing to trade votes for fine wine and dining.

Instead of drinking polluted water, Deltic’s friendly legislators can wash down that New York strip with a bottle of fine California wine on the corporate expense account.

We’ll find out pretty soon who runs this state: The people of Arkansas who need safe drinking water, or huge business interests like Deltic Timber, which thinks what Arkansas really needs is more million-dollar mansions.

The rest of us will just have to drink bottled water.