The Arkansas Highway Commission voted 5-0 today to renege on its promise to redraw the highway districts each commissioner represents to equalize population. The Commission had promised to redistrict in return for Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson's agreement to drop a push for a constitutional amendment to end Highway Department independence.
The commission is, in short, a pack of liars. They claimed they couldn't come up with a map, but any high school kid with a computer and the right software could have devised a map to give each commissioner's two so-called "advocacy districts" roughly equal population. As it stands now, Commission Chair Madison Murphy of El Dorado gets $5 million to divide up among the 400,000 people his districts represent against the same money for the million or so people in Dick Trammel's Northwest Arkansas districts. Murphy has opposed equalizing the districts from the start. You can see why. Legislators have argued it's a simple equal representation issue.
Even legislators not on board Hutchinson's original proposal don't like high-handed state agencies that believe their power exceeds that of all the other branches of the government. (Remember the Game and Fish Commission flap?) There will be repercussions. Perhaps not in the fiscal session in 2012, but certainly in 2013 unless the Highway Commission rethinks. I understand members are already getting an earful.
Murphy tried to say the argument was about spending strictly on population, which he said wasn't sound practice. It's not sound practice, but that's not the argument here. Some money is divided up based on districts, but an overwhelming majority is allocated statewide based on defined needs. Hutchinson has said he didn't seek a change in funding formulas, but merely in the population placed in each of the 10 districts.
The Stephens article suggests the Commission only promised to study redistricting back in the session. Documents show, however, that the commission was "committed" to creating districts of equal population. The unsigned document at the link was created to signal the commission's commitment and it was reported verbatim at the time. Following it on the link is the formal order.
PS — The Commission today also fired its long-time counsel Robert Wilson. He'd earlier sued over what he called the effective firing of being suspended without pay over his paid leave policies for people in his office beyond standard agency leave rules. He has contended the extra leave was suggested by superiors at the agency.