Columns » John Brummett

Not a Nick bill, but a bad one

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Nick Wilson once robbed us nearly blind right under our noses. Now released from the federal pen, his dark shadow still looms large. Out of what I’m fairly certain was naiveté, state Rep. Stephen Bright of Maumelle put in a couple of bills that had people at the state Capitol saying , “This looks like a Nick Wilson deal.” Once burned, you develop a greater sensitivity to the mere scent of fire. In that context, a Nick Wilson deal is a bill creating a scheme by which a fellow could carve himself a source of money from state government. Bright’s two bills said that when a nursing home or public school or state agency needed a background check on a prospective employee, the State Police would no longer be the sole service provider. It said private third-parties could do these background checks. This is a $2 million thing, help-ful in keeping the State Police in radios and uni-forms, enticing to someone looking to carve a little personal revenue out of the public’s business. Wilson appears to have had nothing to do with it, though, as Bright found, it’s hard to prove a negative. So far as we know, Nick is behaving himself. We do not see his fingerprints. Of course, we never did. This turned out to be a Steve Bell deal. He’s a former senator from Batesville who got indicted and acquitted in one of the schemes for which Wilson was convicted. He never was a Wilson pal, actually. Bell went home and practiced law. He started working with a private investigator. He and the private investigator and another man incorporated a business to do background checks. Bell persuaded Bright that the State Police wasn’t getting the checks done in a timely or efficient manner, but that his firm could. Some nursing home people and school people supported his contention of inordinate State Police delays. Bright thought it sounded like a good bill. Other states outsourced that kind of thing. Bell helped write the bill to define eligible third-party providers, and he happened to define them in his little firm’s image. The press got wind of the deal, and that may be the end of it. Bright is left looking bad, or used. He’s mad at the State Police, the newspapers and anybody else he suspects of tarnishing his name by whispering that he might be involved in a Nick Wilson deal. But putting Wilson aside, and Bell as well, there is a broader moral. It is that this kind of end run by a special interest, whether to take one of the State Police’s jobs or wrest the local control of Central Arkansas Water to oblige a watershed housing development, is an all-too-frequent and dangerous occurrence — especially in a legislature that, in the current session, has yet to do a single substantial thing related to its real responsibilities to enact budgets and improve and equalize school facilities. It may well be that there’s a rationale for privatizing these background checks. But the way to do it would be with extensive public debate, ideally well in advance of the legislative session. The absolute worst way would be the way this was done — out of the blue and at the behest of one vested guy who knows how to work the process. This is the kind of thing that’s about to turn me into a small-government conservative, at least at the state level. We’d be better off to reauthorize continuing level budgets and send the legislature home.

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