Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

TOP STORY >>Lawmakers send money back home

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Members of the 86th Arkansas General Assembly believe they have found a way to move money to the benefit of their constituents that will pass muster with former Jacksonville Rep. Mike Wilson and the state Supreme Court, but lawmakers will reconvene at 1 p.m. Monday to replace a few bills Gov. Mike Beebe vetoed as local legislation.

House Speaker Benny C. Petrus and Jack L. Critcher, president pro tempore of the Senate called for the special session to assign the money from vetoed projects into various state agencies.

Wilson, who sued the state over the practice of earmarking General Improvement Funds for local projects at the close of the 2005 General Assembly, said last week that this session, lawmakers apparently got the message. They are turning money back to the cities and counties and to state agencies.

They are making money available for fire departments, senior centers and certified domestic violence centers, according to state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville. “What we essentially did this time around is to send a bunch of money back to the cities equally distributed by an existing formula and where a facility is located,” Bond said.

“We sent a significant amount—about $20 million — back to cities and counties,” Bond said. “Jacksonville will get in excess of $200,000.”

In addition, state senators each directed $571,429 in state turnback money to the city and county governments within their districts. Legislators carved up about $52 million last session for what Wilson called pork-barrel projects in violation of the 14th Amendment of the Arkansas Constitution, which prohibits local legislation.

Wilson sued to stop payment of about half-a-dozen earmarks, most of them in state Rep. Will Bond’s Jacksonville district, where Wilson lives and works.

The money for projects Wilson challenged would have 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 said he supports the projects he challenged, noting that his brother-in-law is Bobby Roberts, director of the Central Arkansas Library System, of which the Jacksonville library is a member. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Willard Proctor authorized the disbursement of those funds, but Wilson appealed to the state Supreme Court, which found in his favor on one big project.

“The remainder of my case is before the Supreme Court now,” Wilson said.

Wilson said his precedent would likely have had the effect of encouraging others suing the state over projects in their areas if legislators hadn’t found a legal, more equitable way to help their constituents.

“I don’t think there would have to be any further challenges, if it’s the way it appears,” Wilson said.

This year, state legislators directed $100 million in projects, with about $55 million of that for state highway roadwork, $20 million each for the Senate and the House to appropriate and $5 million for use at the governor’s discretion. State Sen. Bobby Glover, D-Carlisle, designated $300,000 and $106,429 to state Rural Services, $50,000 to the Natural Resources Commission, $50,000 for the state Military Department, $25,000 to the Arkansas Heritage Commission, and $5,000 for the Secretary of State and $35,000 for the Department of Parks and Tourism.

He said he anticipated that about $200,000 would be available to complete both the Lonoke County Courthouse annex and also the county detention center.

Glover said he would write a letter asking the state Military Department to use the $50,000 toward a new National Guard Armory slated for Cabot.

“I never was really comfortable with (and am) still not comfortable with (earmarked) General Improvement Funds,” said state Sen. John Paul Capps, D-Searcy. “It’s a poor way to appropriate tax dollars, but I recognize there are many worthy causes that probably would never receive any funding from the state.”

He said he was much more comfortable with the method this year of designating the money to state agencies “which can then disburse them without designation from any member of the legislature.”

Just back from vacation, Capps said he didn’t recall the specifics of the state agencies he designated to split his $571,429.
In addition, House Bill 1836 gave back money to the cities, determined by a distribution calculation, sending at least $189,388 to Cabot, $36,751 to Lonoke, $25,855 to England, $22,111 to Ward, $19,751 to Carlisle, $5,186 to Austin, $2,400 to Humnoke, $2,014 to Keo and $994 to Coy. That’s assuming that Gov. Mike Beebe divides another $3 million among Arkansas cities, which Glover says he believes will happen.

Otherwise, each of those towns will receive 80 percent of those amounts. In White County, including the money from the governor, Searcy would get $162,264, Beebe would get $42,263 and McRae would get $5,666. In Pulaski County, Jacksonville stands to receive as much as $256,480 and Sherwood $184,407.