Columns » John Brummett

Power of other people’s money



Some people got intrigued a couple of weeks ago by a casual reference in this space. It was about how an unidentified lawyer was looking for a willing client so he could file a lawsuit challenging the way the state Highway Commission spends money.

The Highway Commission governs itself through 10 antiquated regions based on five old congressional districts, with each of the five constitutionally independent highway commissioners responsible for two regions. This 1940s-era configuration has four of the five commissioners beholden to rural areas, with only one, from Rogers in Northwest Arkansas, predominately tied to a metropolitan area of growing population.

In other words, a disproportionate amount of our highway work gets done in dormant or dying rural areas where not so many people are living, driving and working, instead of in Greater Little Rock and the Fayetteville-to-Bentonville strip, where you can run into a traffic jam.

The money is not following the cars, to use Gov. Mike Beebe's phrase for what he prefers, though the governor can't tell the Highway Commission diddly — on account of the Mack-Blackwell Amendment to the state Constitution — and Arkansas remains more a rural state than an urban or metropolitan one.

This lawsuit would allege that the Highway Commission's structure and process fail to grant equal protection to taxpayers. It would call for modernizing the geographic divisions, which presumably would, in turn, lead to a distribution of money more reflective of the contemporary population pattern. The client or clients would come from Northwest Arkansas or Central Arkansas, those being the aggrieved parties.

Be advised: Rural Arkansas would still get highway money, both to maintain existing arteries and attract economic development. But it wouldn't get as much.

So how about an update on the suit?

All right. Here it is. The unidentified lawyer shopping it has tucked tail.

I agreed not to identify him in the first place because he was nervous. He got more nervous still when he asked a veteran politico for advice and the veteran politico recommended not messing with the Highway Commission.

Here's what I have now: Two other lawyers, one with Republican ties and the other with Democratic ties, both of whom must remain unidentified for the time being as well, have indicated an interest in taking on this case. But they don't intend to move until the Highway Commission releases millions upon millions of stimulus dollars in September.

There long has been an implicit threat — never confirmed as explicit — that the Highway Commission will punish regions by withdrawing popular highway projects if persons within those regions make trouble for the commission.

A few legislators like to tell about how they had nine votes in the State Agencies Committee a few years ago to refer to the voters a proposed change in Mack-Blackwell to provide for popular election of highway commissioners within regions. They say that highway commissioners began pulling legislators behind closed doors, and, when all was said and done, there were only two votes to refer the amendment.

Maybe that merely reflects splendid skills of persuasion and good clean lobbying.

But now with all this federal stimulus money, implicit threats send people into deeper bunkers than ever.

Imagine that: People seeking equal representation and to engage in free expression, both constitutional rights, cede those rights against the implied or perceived bullying of public servants. And these public servants hold power only because they so happen to have control of millions of dollars that our federal government printed after going further in debt to the Chinese in a process by which your children and grandchildren will have to repay the debt.

When you put it that way, it hardly seems fair or right, does it?


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