The kickback scandal involving Ecclesia College provoked collateral criticism of multiple Arkansas legislators sending state tax dollars to the struggling school because it is incorporated as a church. Former legislators Micah Neal and Jon Woods could face prison time for the kickback scheme. Now here’s some more on government-subsidized religion.
Russ Racop, a blogger with a love for digging through public records, recently obtained under the FOI from the Central Arkansas Planning Development District all the documents related to projects for which Sen. Joyce Elliott of Little Rock had expressed support for funding through the General Improvement Fund handout. It was an appropriation to the regional planning agencies, but the further distribution was done at the direction of legislators, who got a pro rata share of the overall appropriation.
Racop’s framing seems a little unfair. Yes, Elliott supported a grant to Dayspring, a behavioral health services agency that figures in Rusty Cranford’s recent plea to a sprawling federal bribery charge that details influence peddling to win state money for Preferred Family Healthcare and related operations such as Dayspring. That charge didn’t name Elliott or this Dayspring grant. Many other legislators around the state directed money to Dayspring and other Cranford projects. That doesn’t make them facially illegal or even necessarily improper. (I’d be pleased today to be able to say, however, that I had never done business with Rusty Cranford.)
A lawsuit put an end to handouts of state surplus money laundered through the Planning and Development Districts. The problem was funding of local projects, barred by the state Constitution. State surplus CAN be used for work generally beneficial to the state at large.
The documents Racop unearthed on Elliott again illustrate how badly the GIF earmarking program went awry, in part by spending public tax dollars on churches. This isn’t the first time. Ecclesia College is incorporated as a church. Sen. Bart Hester, to name another, directed money to a preacher’s program up in his part of the state.
Racop’s FOI also showed church beneficiaries in documents related to Elliott. If you read them, you’ll note that a number of other Pulaski County legislators, Mayor Mark Stodola and County Judge Barry Hyde were copied on news that the grants had been awarded, suggesting that they also supported the spending, so Elliott alone shouldn’t shoulder the criticism. The projects:
* $7,500 for a gospel choir concert by St. Luke’s Baptist Church of North Little Rock.
* $25,000 to the Mosaic Church Vine and Village program which provides food and support to poor families.
* $26,000 to St. Mark Baptist Church to upgrade video equipment to improve broadcast of their Sunday church service.
Racop also notes grant money to Philander Smith College, a private school supported by the Methodist Church, to support a STEM education program.
The GIF money-laundering scheme was properly ruled unconstitutional. Legislative control of individual grants was a bad idea, whether it was for warmup suits for a North Little Rock high school, a fireworks show in Benton, a preacher in Benton County, t real estate for a dubious church college in Springdale. To name just a few.
It would be a project hopelessly huge to compile every grant in the millions allocated under this program, with a list of every sponsor and recipient and the attendant paperwork that frequently shows shoddy accountability. Even if that list could be assembled, it would shed no light on whether bribes/kickbacks/other considerations played a role. Which is yet another reason why the legislature should appropriate for state needs in the open, in the legislature and not cook up money-laundering porkfests such as the GIF boondoggle.
I hope all can agree spending tax dollars to help a Baptist church broadcast Sunday services is a GIF too far.