Mike Wilson, the Jacksonville lawyer and former legislator who’s crusaded against legislative pork barrel spending on local projects, has amended his lawsuit challenging the distribution of state surplus to local planning and development districts that then redistribute the money as local legislators direct.
Wilson has added to his lawsuit the argument that the statute establishing the districts and setting up their procedures for operation include financial controls that have not been applied to the pass-through legislative money, specifically:
* A proposed budget for expenditures of state money.
* Matching funds from local or private sources at least equal to state money.
* An audit of expenditures.
Wilson’s amendment also alleges its illegal for the legislature to distribute unequal amounts to the eight regional planning districts — amounts ranging from $588,750 to Central Arkansas’s $2,985,700. the difference is explained in part by some legislators decision to take their surplus money — the so-called General Improvement Fund — and direct it other places, particularly higher education.
Absent proof that the law has been followed, Wilson argues, a judge should enjoin the expenditures and the money should be refunded to the state.
Wilson in 2005 successfully sued to overturn the legislative practice of making specific appropriations to pet local projects, in violation of the Constitution’s prohibition of strictly local expenditures. Since then, the legislature has appropriated lump sums to planning districts, with the understanding and practice that the money is spent as local legislators direct — a fireworks show in Benton, for example, and some athletic clothing in North Little Rock, for another.
This prompted Wilson to sue again argue that the procedure was just an artifice to accomplish the same unconstitutional purpose. But at a hearing last month, Circuit Judge Chris Piazza said Wilson hadn’t presented enough evidence to warrant an injunction against the spending and he’d to hear more evid ence to rule that the program was illegal. Wilson testified about 37 programs to receive money from legislation in Central Arkansas.
I learned today, however, that the spending in the Central Arkansas Planning and Development District had already been put on hold on account of the lawsuit. Rodney Larsen, director of the agency, said the district’s board had voted Feb. 25 to freeze the money, on the advice of their attorney, Sam Jones. He said at least one other planning district in the state had also frozen the spending as a precaution. Larsen declined comment on the Wilson lawsuit amendment. But the districts don’t have matching money for the GIF allotments. They could be expected to argue that the general authorizing statute cited by Wilson is meant to apply to other operations, not the spending of GIF money.
Wilson sued on the Central Arkansas district as a resident of the district, but the lawsuit has potential statewide application. The issue elsewhere has not been only unconstitutional local spending, but curious spending. Ernest Dumas wrote, for example, about the legislative audit that illustrated misuse of funds by the Northwest Arkansas district, including paying off a debt to a wholesale grocer in Missouri (not exactly a benefit to Arkansas taxpayers) and sending tax money to an obscure Bible college, Ecclesia, in Springdale for dorm and operating expenses.