We reported over the weekend the city of Little Rock’s plan to resume $300,000 in annual corporate welfare payments to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Those payments had been ruled illegal in 2015 by a judge who said it was a sham subsidy of a private corporation, prohibited by the state Constitution. The ruling threatened handouts to chambers around the state so the now-indicted former Sen. Jon Woods crafted a constitutional amendment to legalize taxpayer support of business lobbying groups.Voters approved the “economic development” initiative in November 2016.
Quietly, the city of Little Rock put out bids for a contract on services Feb. 8. Only the chamber applied.
A quick scan indicates the chamber just proposes to pick up where they left off. The bid includes renewal of $100,000 for the Metropolitan Alliance, which the chamber “staffs” to attract business to the region, not just Little Rock. Detailed pricing was just for a handful of general categories. There are no specifics of time or effort devoted by chamber employees to support the bid. It appears to include $7,500 for an air show, likely the Paris air show at which Mayor Mark Stodola and chamber boss Jay Chessir famously dined royally a few years back.
The city requires that the arrangement be covered by the Freedom of Information Act to the extent “applicable.” I can tell you from past experience the chamber thinks that law does NOT apply to who gets how much money, how the money is spent, what representations are made by chamber and potential clients about Little Rock and any other relevant information,. The city gets a generalized quarterly report and a pro forma financial statement.
The key question is what the city is getting for its additional $300,000 that the chamber wasn’t already doing with its own resources. There is no protection in the agreement against using employees subsidized by the chamber to lobby in behalf of state and federal law changes that might be opposed by a majority of Little Rock citizens.
It is, in short, the same old corporate welfare payment the lawsuit was intended to stop. Thanks to a senator accused of felonious kickback activity, the door is now open again.
City Manager Bruce Moore did say that, on account of my inquiry, the proposed contract has been removed from the city board’s “consent agenda” Tuesday night. The board won’t act Tuesday, but will vote to put approval of the contract on the April 18 agenda. He said he expected some discussion. Let’s hope.
This will, remember, be a vote to give $300,000 in taxpayer money to the organization whose leadership led the campaign to abolish the Little Rock School Board. The chamber works hand in glove with the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, which in the recent legislative session, among many other agenda items, worked to reduce unemployment compensation, reduce compensation for on-the-job injuries and, in a particularly petty move, tried to criminalize mass political demonstrations. The head of the state chamber, Randy Zook, was apparently ticked off by the Occupy Little Rock movement which didn’t interfere with any business but angered the starched shirt crowd (City Director Lance Hines, particularly) with a downtown encampment FIVE YEARS AGO. The chamber apparently nurses grudges about offenses to its refined sensibilities.
The City Board is structured for control by the three at-large members, who are wedded to the chamber’s agenda on account of money. So I don’t expect the board to stand in the way of resumption of the corporate welfare payment. But perhaps somebody might ask a question or two about why taxpayer sales tax pennies should subsidize people who work against workers’ rights, against a democratically elected School Board and against the First Amendment.
PS: Couldn’t help but note how the chamber touted the Little Rock Technology Park on its achievement list. That’s another city taxpayer project, to the tune of $21 million or so. The idea was that if the city bought some downtown real estate (making some nice change for owners, marketers and contractors) tech people would flock here.
Venture capital has been in short supply so far. But wait … that Jon Woods amendment, along with some recent enabling legislation, might let the city get into providing taxpayer money for that, too. Here in Arkansas, the powers that be really like public-private partnerships. Public provides the capital. Private interests reap the profits.