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Squeezing the rock

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The Chamber of Commerce does not snuggle up only with public officials, though that is some of the dearest snuggling. The chamber fancies opinion-molders too. Some years back, we knew a newspaper editor in small-town Arkansas who doubled as president of the local chamber of commerce. He saw no conflict of interest in those offices, believing the chamber universally loved, except perhaps by malcontents at the shoe factory who should have been grateful they had a job at all.

And so it has remained, in most of Arkansas. With the help of the chamber, ours is still a low-wage state, the chamber and its friends in government and the media still oppose any effort at the unionization that could make workers' lives better, and they still support tax breaks for grossly wealthy and low-paying corporations.

It is a sign that Little Rock, at least, is growing up that a citizens group has challenged city government's annual $200,000 gift to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce. What the chamber does with the public's money is largely unexplained, though knowing what we do of the chamber's political philosophy, we can be sure the money is not squandered on the common man.

Early this month, Arkansas Community Organizations sent a letter to the city board of directors and Mayor Mark Stodola asking that the city stop giving taxpayers' money to the Chamber. ACO suggests the money could be better spent for police and fire protection, for trash collection., for transit, for any public purpose.

The board and the mayor didn't agree, and the chamber got its $200,000, but the ACO will be back. So will Max Brantley, editor of the Arkansas Times, who has repeatedly questioned the taxpayers' subsidy of a private special-interest group.

Public Citizen, a public-interest group, has reported that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $32,452, 999 to influence the 2010 midterm elections, more than anyone else. (The money was used to aid conservative candidates and causes.) Both the U.S. Chamber and local chambers can muddle through without public assistance, yet city officials seem to believe the contribution to the chamber is the last thing that can be cut from the city budget. It should be the first.

Speaking of misuse of public funds, the elevation next month of Rep. John Boehner of Ohio to speaker of the House is truly scary. Boehner is a proponent of voucher subsidies for religious schools. He wants publicly funded "faith-based" charities to have the right to discriminate in hiring on religious grounds. He's pushed for "intelligent design" instruction in public school science classes. Friends of the First Amendment must be prepared to resist.

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