ANOTHER COURT WIN: For Mike Wilson.
The Arkansas Supreme Court
today reversed a lower court ruling by Judge Chris Piazza and declared that Mike Wilson had properly challenged spending of state surplus — the General Improvement Fund — as unconstitutional.
One key point. Attorney General Leslie Rutledge
attempted to defeat Wilson's suit on ground of mootness
. But the Supreme Court noted that some $2.4 million sent to economic development districts in the legislature's money laundering scheme remained unspent at the time of the trial. Taxpayers should be entitled to repayment of unspent money said the court in an opinion written by Justice Robin Wynne
Wynne wrote that the Constitution requires money be drawn from the treasury only for specific appropriations with purposes "distinctly stated." To get around an earlier court ruling on another Wilson suit over spending
of state money on local projects, the legislature parceled out surplus to regional planning districts. These agencies then generally distributed the money as individual legislators directed from proportionate shares of the money. The court said that wasn't good enough
A "grant" to CAPDD is inadequate under article 5, $ 29, just as an appropriation of "state assistance" or "state aid" was held to be unconstitutional in Wilson II [the earlier lawsuit]. The State argues that the purpose of the appropriations can be found in external statutes-here, Arkansas Code Annotated section 1,4-1,66-201 et seq.-where it is clear that the statutes are applicable. The State contends that in light of the statutory and regulatory mechanisms expressly governing the disbursement of funds to planning and development districts, the only reasonable interpretation of the "distinct purpose" of the challenged acts is to promote economic development for the benefit of the citizens of Arkansas. However, the plain language of article 5, $ 29 requires the purpose of the appropriation to be distinctly stated in the bill itself. Accordingly, we reverse and remand on this point without reaching Wilson's factual allegations because the acts are facially unconstitutional.
Wilson limited his suit to expenditures of the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District, which covers the area where he lives.
The decision was, effectively, 5-2. Justices Rhonda Wood
and Shawn Womack
dissented from significant
portions of the majority ruling, agreeing only that Wilson had standing
to sue. They would have dismissed the case against the state for mootness. They also asserted that the legislative spending was not unconstitutional local legislation, an issue the majority didn't reach because it said the act was facially unconstitutional for failing to give a specific purpose for the spending. Wood, while agreeing with some of the majority's analysis on the constitutionality of the appropriation for planning districts, said the Constitution doesn't require a specific showing of how the money is to be spent, as an earlier court ruling held. The money was used for legislatively favored local causes, many of them strictly local in nature (such as warmups for a local high school team). But that became clear only after the districts began handing out money at legislators' direction.
Spending of this money has always been corrupt at a certain level — bad government if not strictly illegal. But it has led to criminal corruption. Two former legislators, Jon Woods
and Micah Neal,
were indicted for scheming with others to get kickbacks from hundreds of thousands of GIF money funneled to Ecclesia College,
a private Bible college in Springdale. Numerous instances have been cited of money spent on dubious or non-existent enterprises. Lawyers in the Springdale case have said they've been told to expect further indictments. Senate Republicans have even adopted a rule to deal with leadership changes that might be required in the event of more criminal charges.
The Supreme Court — not counting Rhonda Wood and Shawn Womack, both Republicans,
and Womack a former legislator — struck an important blow today for cleaner and constitutional government.
If the money spent through the planning districts was legal — as the state, legislators and the two dissenting justices argue — why did legislators not simply pass specific legislation to do it?
Wilson, a Jacksonville lawyer
and former state legislator, took on the issue years ago as a pro bono cause. He deserves a round of applause.
With money tight and Gov. Asa Hutchinson in opposition, the legislature sent out no GIF money in the 2017 session, but many were unhappy about it.
UPDATE: Wilson said he was "gratified" the Supreme Court majority had adopted retired Justice Robert Brown's ruling in earlier cases on legislative spending of surplus on local projects. He said he hoped the ruling would give "backbone" to local agencies such as the planning and development districts "to refuse to do this kind of stuff."
He said it's unclear how much money is unspent at CAPDD. It was $2.4 million at trial, but he said there was an inconclusive answer at oral arguments to a question about how much remained unspent and thus could be returned to the treasury.
Wilson said he would likely ask on the remand to Judge Piazza for some attorney fees for a lawyer who'd helped him, John Ogles, but he planned to take no fees himself.