The Blytheville Courier provides the baldest admission of the essential corruption of Arkansas legislative pork barreling spending that I’ve seen.
It came in a report on a civic club speech by Democratic Rep. Monte Hodges of Blytheville, who said he hoped the unfolding scandal about kickbacks paid to at least one legislator (and likely more) from pork barrel money won’t stop the distribution of surplus money through the so-called General Improvement Fund.
“I’ve been able to inject almost $300,000 back into Mississippi County in the form of GIF grants for feeding programs like the Food Pantry, the Echols program (Blytheville Community Samaritan Ministries), Healing in the Hood, Daddy’s Diamonds, the City of Blytheville,” Hodges said. “I gave $65,000 to tear down dilapidated housing. I’ve given all the municipalities in my district GIF funding to help with various projects.”
“One of my dear friends, who didn’t run for office again this term, admitted that he took some kickbacks from that GIF funding,” Hodges continued. “I’m hoping it doesn’t affect…one bad apple to spoil the whole bunch.”
Hodges said he hopes those actions do not affect GIF funding, especially for the sake of rural communities that rely on that revenue source.
What’s wrong with this? Just the law. The Arkansas Constitution forbids special local legislation. For years, the legislature ignored the Constitution and lawmakers like Hodges turned out dozens of little bills for rural communities, county fairs, garden clubs, rodeos and the like. Mike Wilson, a former legislator, finally sued. He got such legislation declared unconstitutional. The hogs in the legislature would not be denied. They came up with a ruse to maintain a pork barrel set-aside known as GIF. The money was shipped first to planning and development districts, which then generally spent the money as directed by local legislators. Mike Wilson sued again. Lamentably, Judge Chris Piazza ignored the abundant evidence that this was merely a ruse for local spending and decided there was some legitimate economic development interest in the money -laundering legislation.
Worthy though some recipients might be (and that’s sometimes debatable, as when it comes to the Christian college that so many legislators have tried to support with tax dollars), they are still local projects and should not be funded by direct state dollars. If the Constitution means anything.
There’s good news, though. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has included no GIF money in his budget. He wants to kill that program. So, too, do some hard-right Republican conservatives. We can hope that the guilty plea by Republican Rep. Micah Neal to taking kickbacks on spending of his GIF allotment WOULD affect continuation of the program. And, Rep. Hodges, the guilty plea identifies already TWO bad apples (also an unnamed senator), not just one. They had company from the lobbying community, too. There’s more spoilage in that barrel that Hodges’ speech lets on.
By the way: Patheos blogger Warren Throckmorton continues to press for more information from Ecclesia College in Springdale, which received almost $600,000 in GIF money thanks to friendly legislators. It is from its allotment that an intermediary apparently sent a cash kickback to Micah Neal. The college has asserted it did nothing wrong, but hasn’t identified what consultant might have aided in its fund-raising and how it came to receive the GIF money. Throckmorton says questions he posed on the college Facebook page have been removed and he’s been banned from commenting there. He says Ecclesia should be transparent.