It is time — far past it, really — to revisit the General Improvement Fund (GIF), better known as the legislative slush fund or the surplus kitty, which the Arkansas Supreme Court declared eight years ago to be an illegal abuse of the taxpayers’ toil.
Legislators didn’t take kindly to the judicial branch meddling with their feast and, far from shutting down the illegal spending, they have ramped it up nearly every year. After all, lots of voters as well don’t believe that court orders have to be obeyed unless you like them.
A rare and largely ignored legislative audit this year is what compels a fresh look at legislators’ practice of quietly designating your tax dollars for groups back in their districts that might show their gratitude by bestowing support and votes in the next election. It may also compel another lawsuit, for all the good that court orders seem to have on the legislative branch.
The investigative audit, requested by a legislator who has since left office, showed rampant misuse of GIF and other state, federal and foundation funds by the Northwest Arkansas Economic Development District, which the legislature directed to disburse tax funds (very discreetly) to friendly programs and towns in the nine counties in the state’s northwest corner. The planning district last year spent $637,000 of GIF funds, improperly if not illegally, to pay an old debt to a wholesale grocer in Springfield, Mo. — money legislators intended to be spent on projects in their districts. The grocer doesn’t vote in Arkansas.
But the audit also itemized more than $11.3 million that the district did spend on legislators’ favored beneficiaries in 2013-14, including $592,000 in that period alone and by now much more, on an obscure religious school called Ecclesia College where you can get a degree in Bible studies, Christian counseling, Christian leadership, communication or music ministry, business, or sports management. You also can earn an emphasis in pastoral leadership or worship ministry. Never mind the establishment clauses of the U.S. and Arkansas constitutions, which once were thought to prevent either support of or antipathy toward any spiritual institution.
We’ll get back to that audit, but first a little history. 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. A Freedom of Information Act query produces some insight.
Take the many Ecclesia College grants, which are continuing this fall and probably into next year. Nearly all the Republican legislators in the nine counties, led by the now retiring Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale, where the little school is located, pitched in to raise more than half a million dollars to buy nearby land with old family houses that are now listed as dormitories and for what apparently is just operating money.
Woods, who ran for the Senate on the promise that he would “rock the boat,” pulled out of his re-election race at the filing deadline last month, and explained that he needed to spend more time with his family. That’s rarely a good omen.
Mike Wilson, who never minded stepping on toes (his last suit went after and killed one of his own brother-in-law’s projects), let it be known this summer that he about had enough and that he might sue again. A grinch taxpayers might toast this Christmas.