Leader Blues

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Mike Wilson (Revisited)

When Jacksonvilleís own windmill tilter, Mike Wilson, sued the state four years ago to stop the legislature and the governor from violating the state Constitutionís ban on local and special legislation and from abusing the taxpayers excessively, he could not have known the mess he would cause.

Judging by the legislatureís efforts this spring to get around the sanctions caused by Wilsonís suit, matters are now incalculably worse than they were in 2005. The Arkansas Supreme Court eventually agreed with Wilson and said that, for example, a $400,000 appropriation of state tax funds to improve streets and sewers in Sen. Bob Johnsonís neighborhood at Bigelow (Perry County) was indeed a local bill that violated the Constitution. Voters in 1927 overwhelmingly adopted an amendment to stop the practice of appropriating state funds for local interests and otherwise passing state laws for narrow local applications.

Legislators in 2007 and again this spring fussed with ways to continue dividing up state funds to spend for projects that win them friends back home but do it in ways that might not bring the courts down on the practice.

This time, the lawmakers agreed among themselves to set aside a big chunk of the stateís surplus funds to divide among them for projects back home that would curry favor with local groups. The 35 senators were to get $897,000 each, and each member of the House of Representatives a smaller amount. A large allotment was set aside for the governor to use at his discretion for capital projects of one sort or another at state institutions.

The 59-page General Improvement Bill identifies all the hundreds of expenditures, although many are lumped together. You see, it is not a local bill but a single amalgamation of local bills, so it must be legal.

But everybody in the legislature, it turns out, is not happy with the way things turned out. Senators are wondering if they really did get their equal share of $897,000. You canít tell by the General Improvement Bill, now an act. No oneís name is on any of the individual expenditures. The men in charge, the aforementioned Sen. Johnson, the president pro tempore of the Senate, and Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway, the Senate chair of the Joint Budget Committee, took care of things privately with the state agencies that will dispense the money and, presumably, with the governorís office and the Department of Finance and Administration.

It looks like Sens. Johnson and Baker fared a trifle better than the others ó well, millions better. Sen. Baker got $10 million set aside for the Highway Department to build a new interchange on Interstate 40 in his town to serve the new Hewlett Packard plant. Johnson got $4 million set aside for the state Forestry Department to buy land in the Maumelle River basin to preserve in its natural state for the Central Arkansas Water system.

You will remember that Johnson got hammered, by us among many others, for trying to help Deltic Timber company develop land on the slopes of Lake Maumelle above central Arkansasí big water intake, which would have imperiled our water quality in future years. At least heís on the right side now, although the rest of the state may wonder about earmarking so much of the stateís taxes for a local project. We donít want to examine this gift horseís mouth too closely since itís our water he is helping to keep pure.

Some senators think Baker and Johnson owe them a list that shows everyone is getting his equal share, his $897,000. Baker says calling the distribution equal might be ďan editorial comment,Ē which we take to mean the distribution is really not equal.

Baker said a list identifying every senatorís projects and expenditures were the old way of doing things, which he linked with Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock, who left the Senate last year.

Argue was happy to take credit. What the public needs, he said, is accountability. People should know exactly who in the government is responsible for every expenditure of their money, whether itís legal or illegal. That ó and much more ó is what Mike Wilson would want. Shouldnít the rest of us demand it, too?