Columns » Ernest Dumas

Legislators find way to deliver the pork



The sad history of political reform is that the remedy is usually no better and often worse than the evil it tries to correct, especially when the courts are called upon to fix it.

Supply your own examples, of which the most woeful are the efforts to stem the power of money in politics. But this is about a more niggling problem, the ancient impulse of lawmakers to feather their own nests with taxpayers' dollars.

Reporters at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette in the past month have illuminated how far state legislators have gone to dodge the law since 2007, when the Arkansas Supreme Court ordered them to stop passing local and special acts, which have been prohibited by the Constitution since 1874.

To skirt the Supreme Court ruling, the legislators came up with a clever system that allows them to do things they wouldn't have dared do when they were just straightforwardly ignoring the law and passing local and special acts. The past year, for example, they earmarked your tax dollars to fund a big fireworks show for a Republican Fourth of July political rally in Saline County and $124,000 to build a park and playground for disabled children on the lot of a legislator who has a disabled child. (You see, other disabled children from across Arkansas can come over to his place in Saline County and play there, too.)

Don't get the impression that only Republican lawmakers in Saline County are doing such stuff. The system serves all legislators, although a few them shun it.

When the Confederates regained control in 1874 they wrote a new Constitution they thought would stop the abuses of the carpetbag government during Reconstruction. Legislators had passed laws that settled scores for themselves locally, changed people's names, legitimized children, awarded divorces, vacated roads and generally granted favors to their friends. No more such local acts like those, the new constitution decreed.

Legislators were sliding around the law so the voters in 1926 broadened the Constitution to outlaw local and special acts, period. Then legislators would get around it by wording bills cleverly so that rather than mentioning the town or county where the money was to be spent or the deed done it would apply to all counties with a population of, say, between 10, 200 and 10,220 in the last census.

In the 1990s, with Gov. Mike Huckabee as proprietor the practice of appropriating state money for local projects that would build political support for legislators got out of hand. It wasn't Huckabee's fault; in fact, most legislators were Democrats and they were squabbling with Huckabee over whether he or they should have the say in distributing surplus funds among all the scores of competing state and local projects approved by the legislature. So evolved a system of awarding each of the 135 legislators — party made no difference — his or her share of the pie. If you were weak in one outlying hamlet in your district, give them state money for a traffic light or band uniforms and have your picture taken for the local weekly handing someone a state check.

Mike Wilson of Jacksonville, a crusty former legislator who always seethed at the feather-nesting and political cowardice of his colleagues, filed a lawsuit representing himself and asking the courts to declare such stuff unconstitutional. The Supreme Court did in Wilson v. Weiss.

Legislators set out to find a way around it. Following the law was not an option. Legislators looked at it this way: We sacrifice to go to Little Rock to do the state's business, so we should be able to divert just a small part of those taxes to our friends back home, who see their taxes going off to be spent on education, law enforcement, prisons and people's health care but nothing that they can see where I am benefiting them directly from having sent me to Little Rock.

The legislature devised a system of appropriating lump sums to regional development districts. Legislators would have their friends apply to the development districts for grants for their projects, legislators would then get the word to the development directors which were their projects and each would be funded. Locally, they still get credit for delivering the money and get their pictures taken awarding the checks.

Everyone understands that it's just politics. Rep. Andy Mayberry, whose next-door lot will be the new playground for Arkansas's disabled children, is a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor. His wife, who ramrodded the grant, is running for his seat in the House of Representatives. She got Andy's other Republican colleagues to give their blessings to the development district for the playground grant. It's caused a little problem. Poor Saline County complained that it has to spend money, too, to maintain the park at the Mayberry place and replace the playground equipment someday.

The $5,000 grant for the Republican Fourth of July political rally (the local GOP urged people to bring their Tea Party signs) was the work of state Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, who has a tough re-election race next year. His Republican opponent, Rep. Ann Clemmer, isn't complaining. She arranges to have the development board allocate money for her projects in the district and then claims credit for the money.

The Tea Party? Don't they hate government spending? It's all right. Obama didn't approve it.

Add a comment