Leader Blues

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

TOP STORY >>New bill designed to allow GIF funds

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Mike Wilson—who, depending on your point of view, either single-handedly staunched the flow of legislative pork or else cut the throats of volunteer fire departments, roads and libraries across the state — says if lawmakers don’t turn thumbs down on a naked new attempt to rein in state such spending, he expects the courts will.

Wilson sued to stop the state from releasing General Improvement Fund (GIF) 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. Circuit Judge Willard Proctor ruled generally against Wilson, but the state Supreme Court ruled earlier this year in his favor, sending the case back to Proctor.

Wilson believes that as soon as Proctor takes care of some paperwork, the Supreme Court will rule entirely in his favor. Meanwhile, leaders of both houses have written a bill sponsored by state Rep. Chris Thyer, D-Jonesboro, intended to circumvent the ban on local legislation by turning the money — $50 million or more — over to a committee of eight. Thyer’s bill would create the Arkansas Community Assistance Commission, with four members appointed by president pro tempore of the Senate, four by the speaker of the House of Representatives. Each would appoint one person from each of the state’s four congressional districts.

Local legislators would then have to go hat-in- hand to the committee — columnist Ernie Dumas calls them “The Brotherhood,” to fund the projects to help the folks back home and get them reelected. State Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, who got caught in the crossfire when Wilson, his former law partner, filed suit to disallow GIF projects, says such a commission might be okay if the appointments were made by the governor.

“The real issue is, how much money would be available. It’s plain, what it is, is an attempted end run around the opinion of the Supreme Court,” said Wilson, a Jacksonville lawyer and former state representative. “It could turn out to be more egregious than before,” he said, turning the money over to eight people. “It would surprise me if the people or legislature give up the ability to spend the state’s money to eight people. Why not turn over the whole state budget?” he asked.
Members of the eight could extort votes from the other legislators, Wilson said. “It’s amazing they would try something like that.” Wilson said he had been waiting for a month for Judge Proctor “to enter an order so we can finish the remainder of that appeal.”

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. 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 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 sought 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.