by Max Brantley
People not ready to crown Gov. Mike Beebe as the greatest thing since Grapette encourage me to consider further research on nonprofit contributors to the Arkansas Democratic Party around the time of his 2006 and 2010 inaugural festivities.
It's a complaint worth considering, even if none of the record sleuths demonstrated similar vigor in examining the finances of the Huckabee inaugurals, including outlays of cash for garb and jewels for the First lady.
Anyway, you've heard before that the University of Arkansas Foundation contributed to Beebe (not, the UA says, to the Democratic Party itself, but to the governor's inaugural committee). They were not the only 501C3 organization (a tax-exempt organization that can receive deductible contributions under the tax code) to contribute. This could be problematic, though ultimately the IRS or a court would have to decide and the UA says its counsel believes its contribution fell within the law. The attorney general of Arkansas, whose opinion is only advisory, has said that contributions to inaugural events constitute political contributions. 501C3 organizations can lose their tax-exempt status and be forced to pay penalties if they engage in political activity. Is buying a ticket to an inaugural ball a political activity or lobbying in the eyes of the IRS? Strictly speaking, maybe not. But maybe so, if profit from ticket sales flows to political campaigns.
In any case, the sleuths have questioned these contributions to the Democratic party in late 2010 or early 2011:
The University of Arkansas Foundation, $10,000 (in two $5,000 payments)
Arkansas Association of Two-Year Colleges, $2,000
Arkansas Governor's Commission on People with Disabilities $600
Northwest Arkansas Communithy College Foundation, $150
University of Central Arkansas Foundation, $2,000
Community Health Centers of Arkansas, $10,000
City of Blytheville Waterworks, $2,500
Osceola Municipal Light & Power, $2,500
The University of Arkansas Foundation $2,000
Only the organizations related to colleges were 501c3s at the time of the contributions. The Community Health Center is now, but was not in 2006, when it reported on lobbying forms its expenditure on inaugural ball tickets. It draws attention, as do the government agencies listed, because of the significant taxpayer money it receives to operate health centers around the state. Critics' point seems to be that people depending on government money shouldn't be spending money to lobby government.
UPDATE/CORRECTION: I think it's possible these contribution citations come from on-line data sources as opposed to the original documents and they could be subject to error. UA records indicate only a single $5,000 contribution to the inaugural in 2010 and no contribution in 2006. Perhaps that $2,000 in 2006 should have been recorded as also from 2010 contributor UCA, then a $2,000 giver.
I'd be surprised to find a public agency of any size that doesn't employ someone, or multiple someones, to lobby the legislature. It's an issue, no doubt about it. But I'd suggest to those seeking to make a mountain out of, say, the Community Health Center's seemingly legal contribution six years ago that it's a far larger issue than fudging IRS rules by buying tickets to a dance.
The bigger issue is the millions spent by corporate Arkansas to influence the legislature and governor every single day and to support the likes of ALEC, which churns out corporate-friendly legislation for compliant legislators. We could strike a small blow against this pernicious influence by passing the Regnat Populus 2012 measure to end wining and dining of legislators. We could also strike a blow against misuse of public money by legislating specific prohibitions to uphold the constitutional proscription on public expenditures on private corporations. Beebe's critics worry about money given to him from private corporations. I'm worried about government money being given TO private corporations. I'd like to see an end of direct taxpayer subsidies to chambers of commerce and similar economic development agencies around the state. I suspect the partisan critics of Beebe inaugural ticket buyers would find common cause with the governor AGAINST this sensible idea, however.
Still, yes. University foundations shouldn't be used to make politically tinged contributions, clearly in behalf of the public agencies they represent, even if it's legal. Water and power customers shouldn't shoulder the cost of paying tribute to a governor. Or a chamber of commerce either.