by Max Brantley
I've written before, including here, about how the Little Rock National Airport's confiscatory parking rates have included trying to buy or force out of business a slightly cheaper private competitor, Security Airport Parking. The airport has imposed a sales tax that will eventually rise to more than 8 percent on Security revenues for the privilege of using the airport driveway to pick up and deliver passengers. (No, hotels are not assessed a similar access fee for their delivery vans, only a small annual sticker fee that Security also pays.)
So comes legislation from a sympathizer with parking operator Drew Baker to repeal the high fee and set the tax at the city's half-cent sales tax rate. The airport put on a full-court lobbying blitz to beat the bill, from Mayor Mark Stodola to a number of hired private lobbyists. The Arkansas Municipal League also pitched in. Result: the bill, already passed in the Senate, but since amended, sailed out of House committee today. (And Senate concurrence in the amended version is expected to be routine, bill supporters say.)
It's never easy being Little Rock at the legislature. It's harder still when the airport is rolling in dough thanks to big charges on parking and airlines (which travelers pay) arising from a wheeler-dealer airport director. That would be Ron Mathieu, who, we revealed, charged personal expenses to the public, including a contribution to a private Christian school, and suffered no punishment except for giving up an annual pay raise on his already exorbitant salary.
Details from Leslie Newell Peacock, who was at the meeting:
Airport Commissioner Virgil Miller argued that the fee was comparable to that charged at other airports, though Baker has cited several comparable airports that charge no fee. Miller said the airport benefits the business.
Recent airport expenditures — on land purchases and the infamous $40,000 sent to Little Rock Christian Academy (and refunded after controversy) — were cited as evidence the airport didn't need money.
Stodola argued that the bill was unconstitutional local legislation, aimed at only one entity. Supporters of the bill argued that the airport serves a wide area and the parking business serves many people from all over who'll have to pay more under the fee the airport imposed.
Stodola said the bill was to punish Mathieu for problems that had been corrected. Huh? The bill was to prevent a gigantic sales tax on the parking operation. It was to punish Baker for his competition with Mathieu's Cadillac operation (don't forget the airport flack who makes almost $100,000 per year.)