Columns » Max Brantley

The Chamber of Commerce tax

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Thanks to citizen watchdog Barry Haas, we learned last week that the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce is working to increase its hidden tax on Little Rock residents.

It wasn't mentioned in daily newspaper coverage of the Central Arkansas Water Commission meeting, but Haas reported the water utility's CEO, Graham Rich, had proposed a 100 percent increase in the subsidy that CAW sends to the Chamber each year — from $25,000 to $50,000.

The chamber works on economic development and Rich reasoned that those efforts increase business for the water utility, though proof is in short supply. The city of Little Rock sends out the same message when it gives the chamber $200,000 each year.

I first wrote about the chamber shakedown of taxpayer- and ratepayer-funded agencies in 2009. Support has been edging up in the form of membership fees and direct contributions. The city has held firm at $200,000. But the Wastewater Utility has moved up to $25,000 a year. The Little Rock Port Authority gives $15,000. UALR gives $7,500. UAMS gives $7,000. The Little Rock National Airport gives almost $1,000 in membership fee and has underwritten special events. The Central Arkansas Library System also pays a membership fee, but makes no direct subsidy. Pulaski County government, thanks to resistance from County Judge Buddy Villines, is still not a contributor.

A quarter-of-a-million a year in public money is not chump change. Some of it is paid from foundations (UAMS and UALR), to avoid serious state constitutional questions about public payments to a private corporation, at least in those two instances. But it doesn't cure the lack of transparency in funding decisions made outside public view. The chamber, apart from pro forma reports on its activities, also refuses to specify how the public money is spent.

The chamber has conceded that public money subsidizes staff pay, including that of CEO Jay Chessir. You may remember he was the secret manager of the city sales tax campaign that will produce $22 million for a technology park created by a law written by the chamber and to be administered by a chamber-controlled board. He was the face of the chamber when it brought in a lawyer to fight disclosure of city tax campaign expenditures. He's an official of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, whose politics are so repugnant that local chambers try to distance themselves from direct association.

The chamber gets this hidden tax without a bidding process for its supposed economic development services. It spends the money without accountability. It pays people who lobby the legislature and Congress on issues — working conditions, environmental regulation, health care, taxation — on which there are sharp divisions of public opinion.

Graham Rich has explaining to do, first for his conflict of interest as a board member of the Little Rock Chamber. His devotion to the chamber is also more evidence of the water utility's retreat from give-no-quarter defense of the Lake Maumelle watershed since the retirement of Jim Harvey. Rich has worked to accommodate corporate interests by working out deals with watershed landowners and developers.

Coincidentally, one of the chamber's most influential members is Deltic Timber, the biggest single land owner in the watershed. Its lobbyist — whose other clients include the anti-regulation Koch Industries interests — has helped the forces that have watered down proposed land use rules for the watershed and may yet defeat them altogether.

It is one thing for corporate interests to work against clean air and water and other public and human benefits. It is another thing to make utility ratepayers and city taxpayers help pay for it.

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