Mike Wilson, a Jacksonville lawyer and former member of the state legislature, has filed an illegal exaction lawsuit in Pulaski County Circuit Court over pork barrel spending by the legislature.
Defendants are the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District; Larry Walther, director of the Department of Finance and Administration; state Auditor Andrea Lea; and Treasurer Dennis Milligan. Wilson is representing himself. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza will hear the case.
Ernie Dumas predicted this challenge to the way General Improvement Funds are distributed in a column late last year and offered plenty of background.
In the old days, the legislature appropriated money every two years for capital projects, typically on state college and medical campuses, which would be disbursed by the governor at his discretion if there were any surplus funds in the treasury at the end of any fiscal year. When Gov. Mike Huckabee took personal credit for these gifts, the then-Democratic legislature insisted on splitting the surplus kitty. Legislators would divvy up much of the surplus among themselves. They filed hundreds of bills appropriating sums for do-good programs in their districts — nonprofits like Boy Scout and Girl Scout troops, Boys and Girls Clubs, riding clubs, a club for old-engine fanciers, local museums, Lions and Rotary clubs, or small towns around the district for a traffic signal or parking. Or private colleges and church groups, or just the neighborhood elementary school.
Mike Wilson, a conservative watchdog who served 23 years in the House of Representatives in the good old days, sued the state in 2005 contending that the state Constitution prohibited such spending by barring local and special legislation — laws that applied to just one place. Twice, in 2006 and 2007, the Supreme Court unanimously said Wilson was right. A spending bill did not have to have statewide impact to be constitutional, but if it gave money to one local project, like a Scout troop or a town, there had to be a rational basis for giving it to that troop or that town and not all the troops and towns in the state. A lawmaker’s political survival was not a rational basis.
The legislature fixed that with a clever ruse. It would enact large appropriation bills to each of the state’s eight planning and development districts, which are conduits for millions of federal, state and foundation dollars for aging, transportation, workforce training, solid-waste and other community services. Rather than sponsor little bills, legislators by memo or telephone now contact the planning districts, which are governed by boards made up mainly of county judges and mayors, and tell them the groups they want paid from the big GIF appropriations and how much. The planning boards allocate the money and legislators’ fingerprints aren’t supposed to be on it. The checks are mailed with accompanying identification of the legislators who should be appreciated. Legislators get letters thanking them for their generosity that are suitable for framing or ads.
With the public not watching and there being no accountability, not even an independent audit, the spending got even more egregious. The little audit of the northwestern district, which has been given to the prosecuting attorney, shed light on the practice for the first time, although the auditor, to be charitable, was restrained in his revelations about how GIF money is parceled out with no accountability.
In this lawsuit, Wilson is specifically taking on the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District as a passthrough for legislative pork. He’s seeking to permanently enjoin the state from approving similar disbursements and have the practice declared unconstitutional. He also wants the CAPDD to refund the state treasury $3 million with interest.
Gov. Hutchinson said last year he would end GIF spending and then reversed course.
You can get a plain language sense of Wilson’s perspective on the issue from a letter to the editor he wrote to us last March.