Circuit Judge Chris Piazza delivered a windfall to pork barreling legislators Tuesday by dismissing the lawsuit by Mike Wilson of Jacksonville attacking the money laundering machine legislators set up to get around the constitutional prohibition against spending on local projects. John Lynch reports on yesterday’s hearing in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.
Wilson, a former legislator, successfully sued years ago to strike down the old practice of divvying up surplus money among legislators in agreed legislation passing out subsidies to county fairs, rodeos, civic clubs and the like.
In its place, the legislature came up with a system that funnels the money through the state’s planning and development districts. It is styled as economic development funding, nominally a statewide purpose. Nobody really disputes that the money is then largely spent as directed by the controlling legislators, who often have pictures taken passing out the checks to the recipients they designated.
Few would argue that these are anything but local projects: some athletic apparel for a local high school and a fireworks show have been among the “economic development” projects funded through this sham process.
The lawsuit challenged only the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District, but a decision would have implications for all of them. Piazza decided that the laws establishing these agencies were constitutional and it wasn’t up to him to look at local decisions on how the money was spent.
Katy bar the door. Sam Jones, lawyer for the planning district, defended the money laundering by saying Wilson had unfairly “cherry picked” projects to make the spending look bad. Of course he did. How else to determine if the money is truly going to economic development work of statewide benefit or is simply local legislative pork barreling.
If the Constitution allows a money laundering to make local spending legal — and Piazza thinks it does — more than wasteful spending lies ahead, but heightened corruption. We’ve already seen the downside of this process writ large.
Legislative auditors found rampant misspending of money by the Northwest Arkansas Planning and Development District, including payment of a bad debt to a Missouri wholesale grocer. Curious, too, was big money spent to a tiny Bible college in Springdale.
Chris Piazza’s ruling yesterday offers taxpayers little protection except for the occasional review by legislative auditors. Legislators are vigorous in asserting control of “their” surplus money. See Sen. Keith Ingram’s bullying of his local planning district.
I don’t know if Mike Wilson plans an appeal. Given the state Supreme Court’s recent signals of heightened deference to the legislature, it’s probably a long shot.
Gov. Asa Hutchinson has tried to push toward more statewide use of surplus money, when it exists. Obligations to highway spending and his desire for a tax cut, no matter the cost to services, ought to restrict the flow of pork. If schools and health services to the poor must suffer, perhaps high schools will just have to buy their own warmups and not expect a state grant from a local legislator.