Columns » John Brummett

Letting legislators be somebody

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An issue like it almost always comes up. Its magic is that it allows state legislators to feel like somebody. So it is with Deltic Timber’s brazen power play against Central Arkansas Water, a matter relevant to more than Central Arkansas. I have correspondence from a deputy city administrator in Fort Smith worried about any precedent by which local control of a watershed would be seized by the state to oblige the demands of a private interest. Legislators may know nothing about the state budget or school facilities, or much care. But they can be Central Arkansas’s judge and jury, which makes the drive from Possum Snout worthwhile. They get cajoled by big boys from the development company. They get cajoled by big boys from Little Rock government. Reporters want to interview them. They regurgitate the superficialities they’ve been fed. In some cases, they relish the opportunity to stick it to Little Rock, even deliver payback for school consolidation. It’s the worst kind of public policy-making. Deltic Timber, an arm of the Murphy conglomerate, wants to usurp Central Arkansas Water’s authority to control its own watershed at Lake Maumelle. Deltic wants to dictate its own state law and switch authority in its case, but no one else’s, to a surely pliable state Soil and Water Conservation Commission. The state agency would not be permitted to deny Deltic’s development plan next to the lake, as Central Arkansas dares by using power of eminent domain. Soil and Water merely would be authorized to enter into a development agreement. A good rule of thumb: Beware of a regulator handpicked and hamstrung by the regulatee. These are the primary arguments that legislators regurgitate in favor of Deltic: • Their daddies and grandpappies struggled to buy land, and, by George, property rights are nigh unto sacred. • Central Arkansas Water has been inconsistent, allowing other development in the area. • Scientific research conflicts. That I reject those arguments is beside the point. I know nothing of water-quality science. But neither do legislators. These are matters for constitutional reform, as regarding property rights, or litigation. If Central Arkansas Water is acting arbitrarily and capriciously, then Deltic Timber has as much money for lawyers to take the matter to a judge as it has to hire lobbyists to cajole legislative tyros in the legislative corridors. But Deltic Timber sees the tyros in the corridors as easier and perhaps less expensive marks. The Senate surely proved the point by pre-emptively voting the matter out of committee and passing it compliantly on the floor. Now practically every other person you run into at the Capitol is lobbying the House on the matter. But not Bill Walker — yet. He’s the uncommonly versatile piece of work who holds the federally mandated minority set-aside food service contract at the Little Rock National Airport as well as a nice-paying job on the Post Prison Transfer Board. He got the latter as a reward for endorsing Gov. Mike Huckabee and giving the governor a semblance of African-American support. Walker told me that rumors that he’d hired out to lobby for Deltic Timber were false. “They haven’t offered,” he said. But he said he found Central Arkansas Water “arrogant” and would consider such an offer. He said the real issue — property rights vs. eminent domain — was being lost. As for a conflict between his role with a state agency and his engagement as a private lobbyist, he said he’d take leave time or work in the evenings, when his time was his own. He’s already hired out to lobby for Wilkes and McHugh, the law firm famous for nursing home cases. Huckabee surely wouldn’t mind. The governor has permitted his state Health Department to take both sides of this issue, but most recently Deltic’s, by saying in a letter last week that Soil and Water could handle the matter. In November, the same Health Department official sent a letter to Central Arkansas Water endorsing its local control. You wonder why I suggest a state agency might be pliable.

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