by Max Brantley
I erupted last night when I discovered the proposed Little Rock city budget for 2013 included a new appropriation directed toward the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. I've written much about this topic before. I think the existing city subsidy of a private corporation is unconstitutional, even with the sham services contract the city has devised as a fig leaf. I think it's outrageous that taxpayers are paying the salaries of people who opposed the Obama health care law, fight unions, hate progressive taxation, fought for an unfair workers comp system and have hurt the Little Rock public schools.
City officials haven't been much swayed by my criticism. The Chamber ran their successful sales tax campaign on which the city is now getting fat. The Chamber also ran this campaign in an ethics law-defying way, refusing to disclose specific expenditures, in a procedure that the Ethics Commission now intends to correct. The Chamber is getting its payback, not only by running city government but getting paid to do it, both in the $22 million handout for a chamber tech park pipe dream and annual operating subsidies. The Chamber, or the business establishment it represents, effectively controls city government through the three at-large city board seats that generally combine with directors from wealthier wards for the City Board's working majority.l
The city is holding its annual chamber subsidy to $200,000 a year in the 2013 budget. But, surprise! There's a new item, $100,000 for the Metro Little Rock Alliance. This amounts to an additional subsidy for the chamber's economic development work, based on what limited information I've been able to gather.
The regional organization is based at the Little Rock chamber offices. It's administered by a Little Rock chamber employee, Joey Dean. The chamber supplies its website with info. The organization, established in 2003, spent $173,000 in 2011 and is headed to spending about that amount again in 2012. In other words, Little Rock is about to give the alliance the means for a 60 percent budget increase.
The money comes from a variety of public sources, generally tied to cities and counties in Central Arkansas, including Conway. There's the odd private contributor, including Democrat-Gazette publisher Walter Hussman's foundation.
How is the money spent? I have a pro forma statement, but not a detailed accounting. Dean is out of the office today. He said he'd respond to my request for more detailed information next week.
So far this year, the Alliance has spent $56,000 on "general marketing," more than $10,000 on "direct marketing/travel/professional development," $4,300 on "event sponsorship," and $35,000 on an "administrative agreement." That last sounds like it might be a payment to the chamber for running the operation, but I don't know that. I'd like to know specifically how this money is spent and what portion of public tax money goes to pay chamber salaries. I've asked Little Rock officials, too, how they arrived at a $100,000 outlay for an organization that has spent only $145,000 this year. I can't help but wonder whether this a makeup for reductions in the past allotments from the city to the chamber that dropped the payments from $250,000 to $200,000 (one of many indications that this wasn't a true contract pegged to specific services but just a subsidy to a private lobby group).
I'll update as I hear further.