Columns » Max Brantley

Look whose hand is out

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More this week on creeping socialism in the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

I lamented last week the news that the city of Little Rock, while bloodying employees and public services to meet a budget shortfall, will not reduce by even a thin dime its $200,000 outlay to the private Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce to recruit new business.

Economic development is a good thing. The Chamber has worked on it for years with dues of its members. But government subsidies bring problems. Lack of accountability is one. Another is use of taxpayer money to pay for work taxpayers don't want or need.

It turns out Little Rock is not alone in subsidizing the private organization, which lobbies, among others, to make it hard for unions to organize; against public health insurance; against fair compensation for workplace injuries; for tax subsidies of economic development, and a raft of other not-so-popular causes.

It turns out the public Little Rock Wastewater Utility gave the Chamber $25,000 this year. The Port Authority, a taxpayer-financed agency, gave $7,500. The Central Arkansas Water board voted 4-2 last week to give $100,000 over four years (forgetting, apparently, the Chamber's conspicuous non-involvement in efforts to protect the city's main water supply, Lake Maumelle). UALR chipped in $350.

So at least a third of the Chamber's development fund comes from the public. If you ask how the money is spent, you'll get, if you're persistent, a one-page letter from an accountant saying the account was audited and a one-page statement reporting expenditures in broad categories.

If you ask Chamber CEO Jay Chesshir who, by name, received the $368,294 in salaries, $33,972 in retirement and $23,050 in health benefits from the fund, he won't tell you. If you ask how $84,000 was spent on “minority business,” he won't tell you. The same for publications, travel and auto expenses, etc. He'll tell you, as he told me repeatedly to every specific question, “We have complied with the contract and provided audited financial returns.”

City officials show no inclination to require more information, though the city contract with the Chamber argues that they should. It says the chamber agrees to “comply strictly” with “the laws of the state of Arkansas” while performing under the contract. Ever heard of the Freedom of Information Act? It says anything supported wholly or in part by public money is subject to its terms, even without a contract calling for strict law compliance.

Chesshir did acknowledge, after a fashion, that chamber employees wear different hats. It's a near certainty, though he won't admit it, that employees paid by taxpayers also lobby. Chesshir calls the team's lobbying work advancement of economic development. I suspect you wouldn't be far off in also calling it union busting and opposition to health care reform.

This political angle makes County Judge Buddy Villines somewhat reluctant to pitch into the chamber's kitty. The Chamber has asked him for a county handout, too. It even touted the business lobby's political positions as one of the attractions of giving money. Villines says he told the Chamber those positions would be a disincentive in some cases to him and several JPs. Let us hope.

There's some contradiction (hypocrisy?)  in a promoter of free enterprise seeking government subsidies. But voters should be outraged that taxpayer money is allowed to be spent in secret. And that it may be spent in ways detrimental to the public interest — if you happen to believe better working conditions, universal health care and workers rights are in the public interest.

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