Mike Wilson, a former legislator, filed a lawsuit earlier this week in Pulaski County Circuit Court over the state’s current handling of General Improvement Funds (GIF). This lawsuit may be the weapon that finally slays GIF — or, to use the technical term, “pork.”
Here’s how GIF currently works: a set amount of state general funds is appropriated to Planning and Development Districts (bureaucratic organizations which are allegedly supposed to encourage economic development) throughout the state. Once these monies ($70,000 per Representative and $285,000 per Senator) are received by the Planning and Development District, legislators control them by proxy. Local organizations apply for funding to their own Planning and Development District, but that funding will only be approved if a legislator in the district approves the organization’s application.
As Wilson explains in a recent request for summary judgement:
CAPDD (Central Arkansas Planning and Development District) then writes the GIF checks to the applicants using a special bank account used solely for GIF funds, and coordinates presentation of the checks with the sponsoring legislator using an oversized blown-up “check” with the legislator’s name on it for publicity purposes.”
Usually, these “presentations” are covered by the local newspaper — in order to show the public how generous legislators can be with your money.
Wilson also goes on to question whether these projects funded with GIF have any economic development purposes.
A few examples from the summary judgement filing: Sen. Joyce Elliott spent $20,000 in GIF on a “social justice retreat.” Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson spent $10,000 in GIF on “basketball, volleyball tournaments.” Rep. Mark Lowery spent $5,000 in GIF for a “Maumelle big screen TV set.”
In an interview, Lowery told me that GIF serves a “useful purpose,” but that he’d be open to making changes to how the program operates.
I’m certainly open as a legislator to changes being made. I think (GIF) serves some good purposes. A lot of the organizations that do get some of these smaller grants do not have the resources to hire a lobbyist or to have influence to be placed into legislation for funding, so it gives opportunities for small organizations like a food shelter or some civic club that maybe has a community project.
As to whether how GIF is currently allocated is actually constitutional, Lowery said:
That’s not really my call. If this survives this particular challenge, I guess we’ll have our answer as to whether this is constitutional or not.
To say the very least, Lowery’s suggestion that the determination of constitutionality is not really his department rests uneasily with the oath he took to obey the Constitution when he was first sworn in.
Sen. Hutchinson also responded to me by e-mail: in his response, he said he’d support ending the GIF program, but he didn’t answer my question about whether he thought current GIF allocation methods were constitutional. A spokesman for Attorney General Leslie Rutledge (whose office is defending the state against Wilson’s suit) also declined to comment.
In his summary judgement request filing, Wilson argues the current way GIF operates results in “the force of our Constitution (being) avoided” and “public accountability” to be “subverted.”
It will be interesting to see if the courts end up siding with Wilson — and whether the GIF program in its current form is finally terminated.
P.S. According to the Arkansas Times, no hearings are currently scheduled in this case.