The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reports this morning that the North Little Rock City Council approved legislation last night to put economic development services out for bid.
This is an effort to find a solution to Judge Mackie Pierce’s ruling that Little Rock and North Little Rock for years had provided thinly disguised unconstitutional subsidies to such entities as local chambers of commerce and economic development agencies.
This legislation is a step in the right direction, but — practicing law without a license — I’d quibble with the path to approval described in the article.
The city will forward the legislation to Pulaski County Circuit Judge Mackie Pierce for approval, [Mayor Joe] Smith said. ….
[City Attorney Jason] Carter confirmed that process, adding that “We won’t make any final decision until we can run this in front of the judge.”
I’d be surprised if Judge Pierce gave a blessing to an ordinance. Judges normal are not in the business of issuing advisory opinions. If the ordinance — in practice — proves to be a sham (as Little Rock’s belated effort to clean up its subsidy of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce was held by Pierce to be) a contract for services will still be unconstitutional, sham bid or no bid. The proof is not in the words of a bidding ordinance. It’s in the performance of that ordinance. Is it an open process? Is it tailored for a pre-ordained recipient to get the money? Does a contract provide enumerated, accountable services? Can taxpayers see how their money is spent?
I disclose again that I am a member of the board of the Arkansas Public Law Center, which provided legal fees for the citizens who challenged these unconstitutional subsidies, a practice rampant around the state. It is so rampant — and so important in subsidizing the political activities of chambers of commerce around the state — that the business community and lobbyists’s best friend, Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale, got a constitutional amendment referred by the legislature to voters in 2016 that will legalize subsidies of chambers of commerce such as these. In the meanwhile — however briefly — local governments have been hamstrung in continuing to prop up agencies that often use their tax money to lobby against the interest of working people in health insurance, workers compensation, workers rights, injury lawsuits and much more. And, sure, they squire around some industrial prospects now and again, with entertainment provided by taxpayers but not disclosed to taxpayers.
It is perhaps possible to legally bid and award contracts for services including economic development consultation to private organizations. But a judge is going to have to see it in operation to determine if constitutionality has been achieved.