Leader Blues

Sunday, December 17, 2006

EDITORIALS>>The Supremes say no to pork

Do we have a great state Supreme Court or what? Just back from telling the legislature once again that the state Constitution meant what it said about providing a suitable and equal education to all kids, the justices Thursday declared that a local act was, well, just that, a local act, and thus unconstitutional.

The hope is that the decision, though not quite unanimous, will spell a merciful end to the logrolling pork barrel that soaks up tens of millions of dollars — likely hundreds of millions next spring — of taxpayers’ money for political backscratching projects every two years. It will not be quite that easy, but the promise of another lawsuit may deter some of the grab. The legislature may return to a thoughtful analysis of the state’s capital needs but don’t count on it.

Legislators the past four years have begun to carve up the state’s cash balances among themselves — 135 strong — for local projects. Often the only justification is that a project — street improvements, a clubhouse, a local museum — will cement political support.

Mike Wilson, the churlish former representative from Jacksonville, sued the state last year over a bunch of appropriations for community projects in his area, several awfully popular in his own neighborhood and authored by his friend, Rep. Will Bond. Bond was not one of the brotherhood that built the system, but as every constituent should expect he got his share like everyone. Wilson, at any rate, won no friends for his trouble.

Technical issues knocked several of the questionable appropriations out of the suit, but the justices dealt with one, a $400,000 appropriation for street lights and other improvements in the hamlet of Bigelow (Perry County), the home of Sen. Bob Johnson, the head of a group called The Brotherhood, which perfected the fiscal spoils system.

The Arkansas Constitution says flatly that the legislature may not enact local or special legislation. Previous courts have been generous in interpreting what local or special legislation means, but they said an act had to have a statewide, not merely a local, purpose and that there had to be a rational basis for judging it so.

Bigelow and the attorney general, who had to defend all the legislation, said the town was close to some tourist attractions and that improving its streets and sewers facilitated tourism across the state.

Six of the justices did not buy it and they were unequivocal. Wilson argued that every hamlet in Arkansas could make the same claim of statewide import for any sort of project, and the justices agreed.

Wilson v. Weiss is at least an encouraging precedent. It is a shot across the bow of the General Assembly. With nearly $1 billion in balances in the treasury, we can hope that nearly all of it now can be spent on the pressing needs of the state — schools, colleges, prisons and health facilities — and little on political capital for the politicians.