Columns » Max Brantley

LR’s sacred cow

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The city of Little Rock faces tough times. Revenue is down. City workers will be laid off next year. Many others won't see pay raises. City services will be reduced. Summer programs for kids are among the casualties.

One area of city spending is sacrosanct, however. The 2010 budget anticipates sending another $200,000 — same as last year — to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.

Former state legislator Robert Johnston, in a letter in this week's Times, says that allotment should be cut or eliminated. “Subsidizing a rich business organization that lobbies for narrow interests is not an appropriate use of city tax dollars at any time, much less as you are proposing to close Alert Centers, etc.”

Mayor Mark Stodola knows who he serves first. He couldn't get on TV fast enough to dispute Johnston's point of view, after it first appeared on our blog. Stodola lauded the chamber's work in economic development.

Little Rock isn't alone among Arkansas cities in being controlled politically by the business establishment. So it isn't alone in providing subsidies (socialized business development, you could call it) to private chambers of commerce. It's wrong wherever it occurs.

Taxpayers already pay for a well-financed state economic development agency. They need not pay more on the local level, particularly since it only further encourages regional cannibalism in development. It's also difficult, if not impossible, to follow the money when cities send it out to private organizations. Yes, Little Rock has a contract that specifies the services it receives from the Chamber for its $200,000. But that doesn't mean the chamber opens its file drawers to anyone who would like to audit the Chamber's supposed work.

Accountability isn't even the biggest problem. The big problem is, as Johnston notes, shipping taxpayer money to an organization that stands in opposition to so many things on which the people who provide the money disagree.

Check the chamber's website for its policy positions. For starters, it wants a permanent local source of taxpayer-financed economic development money. No FOI need apply, you may be sure.

The chamber brags about its opposition to legislation to make it easier for unions to organize. It staunchly opposes public employee unions, such as those the city has. It even opposes allowing those that exist to have union dues deducted from paychecks. I bet they'd approve a checkoff for the Chamber of Commerce.

The Chamber opposes a public option health insurance plan, which certainly enjoys majority support in Pulaski County. It meddled ruinously in a Little Rock School District election three years ago — primarily by endorsing an insulting, anti-union white man over a moderate black woman — thus supercharging an opposition movement with ill consequences.

It wants to limit the ability to sue for damages in court. It loves the state's punitive workers-comp system. It supports spending huge sums on infrastructure (because that keeps its big members at work), but its only pronouncements on taxes fall in the realm of tax breaks for major industry. The chamber DOES like our cheap immigrant workforce, so it doesn't support a mass movement to ship them all home. It isn't about compassion, trust me.

There's more, but you get the idea.

These are, of course, unsurprising viewpoints for a business lobby. They are entitled to hold and advocate them. But there's no reason to gouge taxes on groceries, jeans and other necessities out of working stiffs, the unemployed, the uninsured, the sick and the hungry so the Chamber can receive government subsidies to work against their interests.

 

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