Columns » Max Brantley

Government in secret

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Early this week, the Little Rock City Hall website mentioned that the City Board agenda Tuesday would include a report from a “new revenues” task force. This was a surprise to many city hall watchers and even several members of the city board.

What task force? What report?

Turns out Mayor Jim Dailey appointed Directors Michael Keck and Willie Hinton to co-chair this task force several months ago, without public announcement. The task force met a number of times (without Hinton, who’s been ill, otherwise the unannounced meetings would have been illegal).

A member of the task force said that Keck had told members “it would be best not to discuss” the meetings in public. The member also said the task force took no votes as the unannounced meetings rolled along. Re secrecy and democracy: Keck says, in an e-mail responding to our Arkansas Blog (www.arkansasblog.com) post on the subject, that anybody could have attended the meetings at City Hall and that a vote was taken at the last meeting, when not all members were present.

This secretive task force — lacking representatives from the New Party, or similar activists, but heavy on Heights and West Little Rock people — has suggested a sales tax increase of up to a half-cent to shore up the city budget, with an emphasis on “public safety.” This is only a task force option for a future election, but it’s an influential starting point and critics must now play defense.

Public safety is important. The city committed in 1990 to paying its share of a consolidated county jail operation. The undermanned jail is some evidence that the city has fallen short. If competition from a city tax proposal for multiple uses torpedoes a likely county tax proposal for the jail, however, public safety won’t be the winner.

Keck’s group also has a proposal — on which the task force split — to tax poor people’s groceries by an eighth of a cent to produce a $25 million slush fund over five years to bribe companies to locate in Little Rock. These corporate welfare funds (“economic development” is the bidnessman’s preferred euphemism) are proliferating like a venereal disease across Arkansas. Businesses gladly accept the handouts, naturally. But only the marginal ones actually make decisions on such relatively trivial amounts. Businesses that add value to a community locate where work force, education, quality of life, natural resources and transportation dictate. Can we bribe itinerant timeshare call centers to locate here? Probably.

Keck has also announced he’s ready to restart the Tax Increment Finance discussion. In comments on our blog, he swears he has no interest in using TIFs to help old political supporters who’d like to receive school tax money to improve West Little Rock streets adjacent to their land. Nor, he says, does he approve TIF use elsewhere in Arkansas (to subsidize shopping centers and movie theaters).

Still, opening the door to the transfer of school tax money to subsidize private business isn’t the worst way to start a campaign for mayor in the business community. Keck insists his task force work has no connection to his potential mayoral bid. From what we know so far, it doesn’t recommend it. Perhaps if the full report weren’t still a secret at press time — even as Keck insisted there was nothing secret about his task force — we’d have a different opinion.




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