Leader Blues

Wednesday, August 17, 2005

TOP STORY>> Funding lawsuit hearing is Friday

By JOHN HOFHEIMER AND SARA GREENE
Leader Staff Writers

General Improvement Fund projects worth $52 million, earmarked for House and Senate districts across the state, hang in the balance as Pulaski County Circuit Judge Willard Proctor holds a preliminary hearing Friday on a lawsuit filed recently by Jacksonville attorney Mike Wilson.

The money—some would characterize it as pork—is intended to help with projects as diverse as a Jacksonville library, a Carlisle civic center, Lonoke’s decrepit county jail and individual volunteer fire departments across the state.

Wilson’s suit would halt 11 named projects, including six earmarked by state Rep. Will Bond for Jacksonville, but also threatens nearly all the projects and the way the General Assembly has awarded General Improvement Funds since 1997. (See editorial, p. 10A.)

This year, depending on their tenure, House members were allowed to earmark $104,000, $158,000 or $212,000 for projects in their district. Each state senator was allowed $750,000 in projects.

Proctor has put a temporary halt to disbursement of funds for the projects named in the suit, saying it was not unreasonable to think Wilson might prevail.
Wilson, a former state representative, says the funding violates Amendment 14 banning state-funded local legislation. The Jacksonville projects named in the case are:

• $190,000 for the new Esther D. Nixon Library;
• $50,000 to the Jackson-ville Boys and Girls Club;
• $50,000 to the Jackson-ville Senior Center;
• $20,000 to the city of Jacksonville;
• $10,000 to the Jacksonville Museum of Military History, and
• $10,000 for the Reed’s Bridge Preservation Society.
Jacksonville voters in July approved a one-mill property tax increase to finance $2.5 million in bonds to build the new library, and Jacksonville Mayor Tommy Swaim promises it will be built with or without the General Improvement Funds arranged by Bond and state Sen. John Paul Capps of Searcy.

Also cited in Wilson’s suit were funds for the Cleburne County Library, and, in Bigelow, for sewers, streets and infrastructure.
Not cited specifically in Wilson’s suit, but threatened in the event of a ruling in his favor is $300,000 toward resolving overcrowding and substandard conditions at the Lonoke County Jail and $350,000 earmarked by state Sen. Bobby Glover for a Carlisle Civic Center.

If Wilson wins his suit it would “have a tremendous effect” on the balance of the $52 million worth of projects, Wilson told The Leader.
“At that point, the Department of Finance and Administration—the people who write the checks—are going to say, ‘We better not write any more checks. These are unconstitutional,’” Wilson said.

Richard Weiss, director of the DF&A, said Aug. 25 is the target date when his department would begin writing checks—other than those put on hold by Proctor.
He said Wilson’s suit had not caused a major increase in recipients wanting expedited checks.

“It’s (Judge Proctor’s) discretion on how broad or narrow of an impact his decision has,” said Matt DeCample, spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office. Asheton Carter represents the state, while Wilson represents himself.

“If the state is going to simply give money away to anybody, that would require a constitutional amendment,” said Wilson, “a vote by the people.”
General Improvement Funds as they now exist began in 1997, so Wilson, who retired said he wasn’t bringing home the pork when he was a state representative.

The money pretty much was at the discretion of the governor and earmarked for higher education, he said.
“Those projects were ranked or listed every two years. The governor would decide when to release the money.
“It’s bad business from a sensible and practical viewpoint… to give money away with no accountability,” said Wilson.

In addition to the projects cited in Wilson’s suit, the $300,000 appropriation Glover, state Rep. Susan Schulte and state Rep. Lenville Evans secured toward a better Lonoke County Jail and the $350,000 Glover got for a Carlisle Community Center, area projects uncertain include more modest appropriations for:
Volunteer fire departments, libraries in Cabot and Ward, the Cabot Senior Center, Open Arms Shelter in Lonoke; $113,000 earmarked by Evans for the Bayou Meta Water District; North Pulaski Community Center Complex, grants for certified teachers, the Arkansas National Guard, Sherwood Rotary Club’s Veterans Memorial and the Jack Evans Senior Center, Arkansas State University—Beebe, the White County Ameri-can Red Cross, White County Aging Program/Lightle Senior Center, White County Regional Library, White County United Way, and water, sewer and street improvements for Beebe, Judsonia and McRae.