Arkansas Community Organizations asked Little Rock City Board candidates how they felt about the city giving $200,000 each year to the Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce.
Director Ken Richardson and one challenger, Kevin Dedner, were willing to talk about the issue. One challenger, Robert Webb, said he would rather divert the money to crime prevention and intervention. Mayor Mark Stodola, Directors B.J. Wyrick and Doris Wright and Lance Hines, the favorite to win a vacant board seat, like the subsidy. Director Stacy Hurst wasn't interviewed, but in a message to me defended the expenditure.
The city once had a staff economic development officer. They could still employ one for far less than $200,000. City Hall is also full of employees with necessary information to respond to requests for information about business needs.
What's wrong here is that the city's $200,000 — and another $25,000 in public money from the Wastewater utility — is a direct subsidy of a private corporation, something that is specifically prohibited by the Arkansas Constitution.
Oh, sure, the city and chamber have taken steps to put a fig leaf over the taxpayer subsidy. The city's contract with the chamber says the city gets "unique benefits," though I've yet to see one enumerated. It specifies that the chamber is an "independent contractor," but the chamber delivers little more than the same quarterly updates it would give any dues-paying member. Its only accounting is a simplified financial statement. The city contract promises chamber compliance with "all laws" including "to the extent applicable, state or federal freedom of information laws." Jay Chesshir, executive director of the chamber, by refusing to answer any of my questions, demonstrates that he believes no law applies. Finally, yes, the contract states that the handout should not be taken as an endorsement of chamber political positions.
But, of course, the financial subsidy — including publicly financed retirement and group health for unnamed employees — at least indirectly supports the chamber's political activities. And the chamber is political. Its PAC just provided the single largest source of support for an anti-union Little Rock School Board member's election. The chamber PAC also gave Mayor Stodola $1,000, $500 to Director Hurst and more to a number of city, county and state candidates.
The chamber is buying support for the pro-business agenda. That's legal. What don't make sense are taxpayer subsidies of this agenda. Working people might, for example, prefer less punitive workers comp laws. They might take a more open view to immigration. They might be willing to pay for cleaner air. They might not favor more corporate tax breaks. They might not want to tear down the Little Rock School District.
Meanwhile, the chamber spits on accountability. They won't name who gets our money. They won't account for how their time is spent. They won't disclose how some $62,000 is spent on "minority business" and what $70,000 purchased by way of "publications/research."
The $200,000 is just a down payment by the way. The chamber's aim is enlisting political support for a dedicated source of tax revenue for economic development. In short, they want a tax to support more highly paid chamber employees, but oppose taxes that pay for public services. They also want the money under the same terms they get it now — no strings and for a shell game to support their corporate political agenda. Our clubby city board and rent-to-own mayor are all too amenable. And if you think $200,000 is chump change, tell it to the city workers laid off this year. Then ask yourself who's the chump?