UPDATE: The July 4 fireworks show at the Saline County Fairgrounds WILL be paid in part with state taxpayer money funneled from the $1 million in General Improvement Funds controlled by Republican Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson.
Early this morning, I wrote that Hutchinson and the Tea Party and other Saline Republicanswere promoting this fireworks show, but were not responding to my questions. Gary Webb, a member of the Fairgrounds Association, said the Fairgrounds is providing the venue, but it was his understanding the fireworks themselves were being paid by a grant. He referred questions to Benton Alderman Kerry Murphy, who didn’t respond to phone and e-mail requests. Webb, by the way, is not one of the two people who told me Hutchinson GIF money is slated to pay for the explosives.
UPDATE: I now have the goods.
Rodney Larsen, executive director of the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District based in Lonoke, confirms that the Board of his agency approved a grant requested by Jeremy Hutchinson to contribute $5,000 to the fireworks show. It was not identified as an event co-sponsored by partisan politicians and organizations. About that, said Larsen: “I don’t have any comments on politics.”
Hutchinson sponsored legislation that sent his $1 million share of the state surplus known as the General Improvement Fund to the Planning and Development District. It is governed by a 24-member board consisting of six county judges, mayors of the largest city in each county and business and minority representatives from each county. Larsen said there was no objection to the grant at the June 13 meeting at which it was approved. He put it on the agenda at Hutchinson’s request, who called shortly before the meeting and said time was short.
He [Hutchinson] recomended to our board that his allocation that came to us be spent for the Fourth of July celebration.
So legislators call the shots on how the money they send to planning districts (each of the state’s planning districts get similar outlays from other lawmakers)? “They don’t direct it,” Larsen said. “What we try to do is get our elected officials to work together on how best to spend money in our area. … We try to find the best projects that everyone can agree on.”
But do legislators who provide the money have more say?
“The only way they do is because they allocated it to us. Everyone got so much and it comes here through that [process] So their recommendation to the Board does carry weight.”
Indeed. This is the most graphic example to date of how the state legislature has found a way around Mike Wilson’s lawsuit that put an end to direct appropriation of money to specific local projects. The outcome is the same, though the money is laundered through various public agencies.
One final question for Larsen: Did the application note that the event would be styled as sponsored by Hutchinson, the Benton Tea Party and the Saline County Republican Committee?
“No sir, it wasn’t.”
Here’s the grant application itself, done formally by Gary Webb for the Saline County Fairgrounds Association and also carrying Saline County Judge Lanny Fite’s name. He was out this morning, but an employee in his office said it was her understanding that the $5,000 would be the only public money in the $8,700 fireworks show budget, as the grant application indicates.
What would be wrong with this patriotic celebration?
See the full e-mail on the jump from Ed Hairston of the Benton Tea Party, who also hasn’t responded to questions.
It says the Tea Party, Hutchinson and the Saline County Republican Committee are “co-sponsors” of the event. He wrote:
Kerry needs help with the flyers. If you can help with parking cars, wear your Tea Party T-Shirts, we will be also handing out copies of The Constitution and our business cards.
The Tea Party, you might have heard, has been mighty particular about spending of government money. It doesn’t, among others, want to spend tax dollars on covering health care for sick poor people. Is it OK to spend tax money on a fireworks show? The Tea Party, in fact, is on record through its supporters as critical of the pork barrel spending known as General Improvement Funds.
In addition to the frivolous pork barreling for entertainment, I think there’s a legal question, too, about spending tax money to promote partisan political activity.
UPDATE: I have still more questions on learning from sources that Kerry Murphy, secretary of the Saline County Republican Committee, is driving the effort to brand the fireworks show as a Republican event. He’s running for county judge next year and sees this as a real vote-getter, my sources say.
Words come to mind. Irony. Hypocrisy.
Jeremy Hutchinson’s personal, financial and ethical miscues have piled high. Before it’s over — even by enlisting Tea Party support by giving them co-sponsorship of a taxpayer-financed fireworks show — can he really stand for re-election next year? Republican Rep. Ann Clemmer has announced her plans to run for the seat.
That number, Jeremy, is 375-2985. Or firstname.lastname@example.org