Columns » Max Brantley

Pork and more

Some notes on disparate topics before I take a vacation break.



Some notes on disparate topics before I take a vacation break:

PORK BARREL: The scandal grows over spending of General Improvement Fund surplus that state legislators have washed through regional planning agencies to avoid constitutional questions. Key players in the orgy of GIF spending were former Sen. Jon Woods and Rep. Micah Neal, the latter of whom has pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks

Crime or no crime, the program has been used to pay for things like football team warmups, fireworks in Benton, turkeys and hams for the needy in Central and Northwest Arkansas and even $40,000 shipped by Northwest Arkansas legislators to somebody in Benton promising to use it for "ozone therapy."

The Berryville mayor said he got $25,000 for a parks maintenance building only after he went along with Sen. Woods on $200,000 for Ecclesia College, part of more than $600,000 in constitutionally dubious support of that religious institution, incorporated as a church. Taxpayers also paid to send some people from Shiloh Christian School to a leadership conference.

The governor and some legislators want to end the GIF. Pulaski County Circuit Judge Chris Piazza could have permanently done so in a lawsuit now on appeal, but unaccountably decided local spending dictated by legislators – even for stuff like fireworks and turkeys – amounted to economic development and thus was a legal use of state money. One opportunistic new legislator says he'll come up with a bill to outlaw the GIF. No bill is needed. Just don't do it again.

FAIR TAXES: Little Rock joined with other cities this week in encouraging Arkansans in Congress to get behind legislation that would require collection of a sales tax on internet sales. Outfits like Amazon aren't required to collect a sales tax if the company has no physical presence in the state. Customers are supposed to voluntarily report their purchases and remit a "use" tax to the state. Most don't.

Little Rock's own congressman, U.S. Rep. French Hill, and Sen. Tom Cotton have been among those reluctant to support the legislation. They say it looks like a tax increase. It isn't. It's just a way to collect a tax that's not being enforced and provide a level playing field for Arkansas merchants.

But there is another way. Louisiana this year joined other states in passing a law that requires internet retailers to give notice to customers of their purchases and taxes owed. The burdensome requirement has prompted many of them to begin assessing and collecting the tax voluntarily. Rolf Wilkin, the president of the Arkansas Restaurant Association, is pressing Arkansas legislators to follow that model here.

AND SPEAKING OF PUBLIC SCHOOLS: I'll have more to say before March 17 on the proposal by the Little Rock School "Board" (Education Commissioner Johnny Key, because the district is in state receivership) to refinance existing construction tax mills and add 14 years of payments of more than a half-billion dollars in taxes to pay for school construction. Through a little-known law quirk, the new taxes would also provide a significant subsidy to operations.

Raise money for operations by borrowing money? Conservative Republicans normally would object to this shell game. They also would normally object to a special school election. Why didn't Key hold the election in November when more could have voted as was ordered in the Pulaski County School District? Is there a Key plan to eventually privatize the district in buildings rehabbed by taxpayers with no voice? Are there plans to build new high school space in West Little Rock? Residents of the district have asked for a meeting with Key to get some answers.

CORRECTION: I've been inaccurate in the past on some comments about the millage vote, which will commit taxpayers to 14 more years of taxes, though not raise the millage rate. Relying on inaccurate figures, I'd forecast an eight-digit ($10 million) loss in operating money annually if the bond refinancing is approved. It will actually be in seven figures, from $4 to $6.4 million, depending on the amount of bonds sold. The 12.4 construction mills currently produce about $40 million a year, with $26 million going to operating expenses, not debt, on account of the rise in property value since the millages were approved.

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