It's become something of a Christmas season ritual.
The city of Little Rock rolls out a new budget. It includes special assistance for a corporate lobby that works against broad community interests. I erupt. The next December, it replays. Bill Murray could play me in a "Groundhog Day"-style movie. Except there's no happy ending.
Little Rock's 2013 budget again caters to that corporate lobby, the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. It continues a $200,000 payment to the chamber, nominally for contracted economic development work. It is nothing more than a direct subsidy of a private corporation, an abuse of the state Constitution.
A new wrinkle is an additional $100,000 payment to the Metro Little Rock Alliance, nominally a regional partnership of mostly public partners engaged in economic development. It is another arm of the Chamber of Commerce and another device to put tax money in its treasury. About 20 percent of the money goes as an administrative fee to the Chamber for work it was already doing anyway. Much of the rest of the budget is payment for a variety of expenses of Chamber employees.
The Alliance, which had a budget of $277,000 this year, asked for $100,000 from Little Rock in 2013 and City Manager Bruce Moore promptly recommended it. My FOI requests produced no record that the barebones application engendered any discussion or questions about why suddenly Little Rock was being asked to pay a third of the group's operating costs. The application makes no explanation of how this effort is distinct from the work Little Rock is supposedly getting from the Little Rock Chamber for its $200,000.
It took three weeks, but I finally dislodged some information from the Chamber about how the Alliance has spent its money, though no specifics on how that administrative fee is spent, except that it flows to the Chamber.
It seems clear that the Chamber has found a way to achieve an otherwise politically unpalatable and legally questionable increase in its direct subsidy from the Little Rock Board of Directors. Just give it a different name.
What's not to like about outsourcing city economic development work, something City Manager Moore said he couldn't afford to do in-house? Plenty. For one thing, there's scant accountability. Who used that credit card for what purpose and what were the contacts and what kind of representations were made about what an industrial prospect could expect from the city of Little Rock? Good luck getting Jay Chessir, the chamber boss to tell you. He's the guy who ran the secretive city sales tax campaign. The guy who said the FOI law didn't apply to him. The guy who fought my ethics complaint over a lack of campaign disclosure. The guy who'll certainly fight the Ethics Commission's effort to fix the loophole he found. In return for this past tax campaign service, the city gave Chessir and the chamber $22 million to build an office building to attract tech businesses.
Now the city board is ready to increase its subsidy of a political organization. The chamber hates unions (the city workforce is heavily unionized). It hates strong workers comp laws. It has trashed public schools. It loves the regressive sales tax. It likes corporate welfare, even for low-wage companies that don't necessarily draw employees from the city of Little Rock. It embraces companies like Welspun, the pipe maker, which happily became a political tool for the Republican Party and particularly U.S. Rep. Tim Griffin. (I might remind city fathers that city voters thrashed Tim Griffin in the recent election.)
The chamber is free to be as politically retrograde as it chooses. I simply object to city taxpayers paying for it. See you next December.