Columns » Max Brantley

City Hall's bias

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Elsewhere on this week's editorial page, you'll learn that the editorial board of the Arkansas Times decided after some debate to support the full penny worth of sales tax being sought by Little Rock City Hall.

I'm not likely to go so far, though I understand the sentiment for the full penny. I'll support the operational millage (5/8ths of a cent). It's excessive, but in due course we'll need the money, particularly if suburbs and the Internet continue to shrink the local sales tax base. The so-called capital millage (3/8ths of a cent for 10 years) won't enjoy my personal support.

City Hall hasn't shot straight on its needs, for one thing. And I just can't countenance the $38 million economic development slush fund for 1) a research park of dubious value 2) port land purchases that could be made as needed, not now, and a honey pot of money to pass out as insiders direct for corporate welfare, preferably to companies that hate unions, hate government health care, don't care if their employees live in the suburbs and don't fully support the local public schools.

You may think I exaggerate. But I've done no more than lay out the politics of the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce, which kept its unaccountable $200,000 city welfare subsidy despite hard times for city employees and whose leaders already have been designated to oversee the bulk of slush fund spending.

These fellows (and I do mostly mean fellows) have always called City Hall shots. Look at another small but telling example last week. Neighborhood groups and average citizens rose up to oppose a rule change to allow construction of five-story buildings across the street from the state Capitol. The existing three-story limit is meant to preserve views of the historic Capitol.

But a land speculator and business community powerhouse, John Burkhalter, bought land at Sixth and Woodlane where he wants to build a five-story building. Since he's a major supporter of Gov. Mike Beebe, many thought he'd have little trouble bringing around the Capitol Zoning District Commission on the rule change, since most commissioners are appointed by the governor.

But no. With the Commission set to vote last week, a head count indicated Burkhalter was going to lose. Up steps Little Rock city government with an urgent plea for more time for "study." This has been studied to death. City Hall just wanted to give Burkhalter more time to turn the screws on commission members. City Hall joined lobbying for Burkhalter by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Associated General Contractors for another. They give not a damn about historic preservation or the neighbors. Burkhalter is one of them and controls billions in spending as a highway commissioner.

There's a nice wrinkle here. Secretary of State Mark Martin, a Republican whose opponent got Burkhalter support in 2010, may have the swing vote through a commission seat he controls. An engineer, he has the training to be able to question representations Burkhalter has made about whether his building will block views of the Capitol. (It will, in some places.)

Martin, of Prairie Grove, was strong-armed by a stream of special interest business lobbyists. But he and the Republican Party chair opposed the plan, making them more solicitous of neighborhood feelings than Little Rock City Hall.

Maybe if everybody in the Quapaw Quarter took out a Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce membership they'd get more attention.

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