Leader Blues

Thursday, December 14, 2006

TOP STORY >>High court could soon decide suit on funding

By PEG KENYON
Leader staff writer

Jacksonville businessman and former Rep. Mike Wilson says he hopes the state Supreme Court will rule in his favor against funding what he calls pork projects and before the January session of the General Assembly is finished. All briefs have been filed in Wilson’s appeal of a lower-court decision allowing General Improvement Funds to be used toward a new Jacksonville public library and for certain other purposes, according to Matt DeCample, spokesman for the state attorney general’s office.
On Nov. 9, the Supreme Court granted the state’s petition for a late filing but denied Wilson’s request for accelerated consideration.

Wilson sued the state Department of Finance and Administration to prohibit it from issuing the General Improvement Fund checks to local projects, mostly in the Jacksonville area. Statewide, legislators appropriated $52 million in General Improvement Funds last year. “It’s already high on the docket,” Wilson said. “I thought it was important to get this decided before it gets very far into the (January legislative) session.”

That’s why he waived oral arguments, fearing that would delay a decision until late January. Wilson says General Improvement Funds are not appropriate for projects unless they benefit the entire state and he would like the matter settled before members of the new state Legislature begin dividing up a new surplus pie at the end of the new session. The attorney general’s office is involved as the lawyer for Richard Weiss, director of the state Department of Finance and Administration. They write the GIF checks.

The ruling in Judge Willard Proctor’s court allowed local state legislators last session to earmark general improvement funds for the new Jacksonville library and several other projects including the Jacksonville Senior Center, the Museum of Military History, the Reed’s Bridge Preservation Society and a Bigelow (Cleburne County) library—about $260,000 in all. Wilson seeks to overturn Proctor’s ruling, which allowed $190,000 toward the new Esther D. Nixon Library; $50,000 for the Jacksonville Senior Center; $10,000 for the Jacksonville Museum of Military History; $10,000 for the Reed’s Bridge (Civil War) Preservation Society and $10,000 toward the Bigelow library.

Wilson prevailed in the lower court in his challenge of a $10,000 earmark for the Jacksonville Boys and Girls Club and a $20,000 award to the city of Jacksonville without a specified purpose, but he lost on five other challenges. Wilson sued to stop the state from releasing general improvement fund money for several projects, saying Amendment 14 of the state Constitution prohibits funding local projects. Wilson argued that allowing state legislators to earmark general improvement funds for local projects is “pork” plain and simple.

“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.” In his arguments last year, Wilson maintained that state funding is appropriate only on projects that benefit the entire state, but Proctor, in allowing most of the challenged projects, accepted a broader interpretation of benefiting the state’s residents. Jacksonville voters in July 2005 approved a one-mill property tax increase to finance $2.5 million in bonds to build the new library.The city has bought or condemned the land it needs for the Library on Main Street and has torn down three buildings and an outbuilding in preparation for its construction.