by Max Brantley
It's a cheap outlay for $50 million a year (but it doesn't account all the free labor and exposure the city is contributing to the campaign.)
Nonethless, here's the first report filed by the Committee for Little Rock's Future, which is supporting the half-billion-dollar city sales tax increase that will allow Little Rock to increase its annual operating budget by 26 percent a year. (You're spending that much more this year in your household budget, aren't you?)
Biggest single donation was $20,000 from the National Association of Realtors. Then came $15,000 each from the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce (which sucks $200,000 off the city's teat in taxpayer money each year) and $15,000 from Stephens Investments. Then came $10,000 from the Arkansas Realtors, plus lots more real estate and development money, which could help explain why Mayor Mark Stodola in this campaign became a born-again fierce opponent of real estate development impact fees (something even Republican Bentonville recognizes makes sense.)
The money has been all spent up by Markham Group on campaign management, and if this non-reporting doesn't illustrate a gaping shortcoming in ethics laws on issue campaigns, nothing does. The only "itemized expenditures" are reported payments to Markham Group. How did they spend it? The taxpayer isn't told. Are they paying street money? Are they paying for YouTube videos? Who's being paid to do the mailing, polling and other work? (In-state, out-of-state, union, non-union?) We don't know and apparently we are not to be allowed to know. It stinks if no further disclosure is made. The mayor, if he really meant the accountability he promises, would demand that the group explain how the money is spent.
Remember this when Stodola starts spending the $38 million economic development slush fund. You'll know the specifics he deems it necessary for you to know and no more. We know from experience on the chamber welfare payment that means next to nothing. Shameful.
We'll get further financial reporting on more campaign fund-raising, but not until after the election. There will be a lot more to report.
I asked Graham Sloane, director of the Ethics Commission, if the law allows such limited disclosure of expenditures — payments only to a management firm that made multiple payments to various vendors. Expenditures of $100 or more are supposed to be reported and itemized. Sloane said he would have expected a payment to a consultant to be broken down to various categories of spending by that consultant, as political candidates must do. The committee, however, seems to believe it's discharged its obligation by disclosing checks to the Markham Group. Sloane said the statute that covers candidates clearly requires categorical spending, but the language on ballot questions is less clear. I plan to file a complaint with the Ethics Commission to resolve the question of whether Little Rock's tax campaign has figured out a legal loophole to avoid disclosure of campaign expenses. Loophole or no, the do-right rule says they should disclose. Mayor Stodola? You favor accountability or secrecy?
(PS: The Markham Group complains that it appears they've been accused of secrecy. Agreed: They just take the money and spend it, they don't file the reports. The Committee for Little Rock's Future files the report. The Markham Group COULD disclose its expenditures independently, of course. But its employer might not be too happy about that.)