Leader Blues

Monday, February 12, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Calling Mike Wilson

The leaders of the state Senate and House of Representatives formulated a bill this week that they think will dupe the courts and sidestep the state Constitution’s ban on local legislation. Instead of lawmakers passing a few hundred appropriations for little projects that will help their re-elections, which the Arkansas Supreme Court said plainly violated the Constitution, the legislature will just turn over $50 million or $100 million carte blanche to a committee of eight good old boys. Individual legislators would then have to give their pork ideas to the committee and the eight would decide who was worthy and who was not.

Does that sound like a prudent way to spend your tax dollars every two years? When you’re dealing with The Brotherhood, fiscal prudence is not even an issue, but rather can they get by with it?

We don’t think so. Our resident curmudgeon, Mike Wilson, will bring suit on behalf of the taxpayers as soon as The Brotherhood chooses the projects upon which to settle the state’s largesse, and the Supreme Court will say you can’t do that to taxpayers.

Wilson, a former lawmaker, filed the lawsuit in 2005 that brought the issue to this pass. The court ruled that a $400,000 appropriation of state tax funds to improve streets and sewers in Sen. Bob Johnson’s neighborhood at Bigelow (Perry County) was indeed a local bill, outlawed since 1927 when Arkansas voters overwhelmingly amended the Constitution to stop the practice.

The amendment slowed but didn’t really stop local legislation. But it got out of hand in 2005, when a band of senators — a majority of the Senate — got together and demanded a big part of surplus funds to divide among themselves to parcel out for projects back in their districts: boys and girls clubs, 4-H, cheerleader programs, local museums, volunteer fire departments, street lights, ball fields, golf programs, Kiwanis camps, rifle ranges, you name it.

If you can have the state treasury send checks under your imprimatur to a dozen community projects every two years, who needs to raise campaign funds?

So The Brotherhood proposes to create the Arkansas Community Assistance Com-mission, whose members will be legislative friends of Sen. Jack Critcher, president pro tempore and a leader of The Brotherhood, and Rep. Benny Petrus, the speaker of the House. The money would be appropriated in lump sum to the commission for “community improvement,” and those members would choose the projects to be funded. State taxpayers would still fund hundreds of local projects, but nothing could be identified as a local bill. Slick, eh?

The remedy to the unconstitutionality of local acts turns out to be a system that is equally unconstitutional because it is plainly only a subterfuge and that is manifestly worse in practice because it turns spending decisions for the entire legislature over to a tiny band of confederates.

Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock, who opposed the grab bag in 2005 and thus is not a member of The Brotherhood, had the right suspicion.

“I think it would be too vulnerable to becoming a tool for either exacting punishment or extending rewards for legislative loyalty,” he said.

In other words, nothing for his district. And probably nothing for Jacksonville, the home of Rep. Will Bond, who lost the speakership to Petrus, and also the home, of course, of the inveterate pest Mike Wilson.

Sen. Argue has asked the new attorney general for an opinion on whether The Brotherhood’s bill, HB 1427, is constitutional.
Our hunch is that the attorney general will avoid a definitive answer, but the Supreme Court in due time will supply one that will be clear enough.