Amidst allegations of former lawmakers receiving financial kickbacks for steering General Improvement Funds (GIF) to certain organizations, Sen. Trent Garner says he plans to file legislation to end the program.
Garner said in an interview with The Arkansas Project Monday afternoon said he recognized the need for this after seeing how the program is used to help incumbent legislators politically and after hearing about the “recent allegations of this corruption in northwest Arkansas.”
Garner was referring to news that broke last week about former state Rep. Micah Neal admitting in federal court he and an “unnamed State Senator” directed state funds through the GIF program to two nonprofits in exchange for bribes.
Arkansas Business has since claimed “Senator A” in court documents is former state Sen. Jon Woods. Woods has yet to be charged with a crime or publicly admit wrongdoing.
During the campaign I saw my opponent over and over again make the point that he got people X whatever X was…a generator or money for this and that. I always thought that was a little bit dishonest because really what he was really doing is giving people their money back. What I want to see is a more fair process where it’s not up to me as a legislator to give back to somebody. It’s up to the legislative body to make the best decisions for the whole state of Arkansas and people in my district. This definitely was spurred on by the recent allegations of this corruption in northwest Arkansas. Ninety-nine percent of the money through the General Improvement Fund goes to good projects and is done by legislators who have the best of intentions. There’s always that risk that it will be misused like the cases we saw or in other ways. If we eliminate it, we’ll reduce that risk to zero.
Here’s how GIF currently works: a set amount of state general funds is appropriated to Planning and Development Districts (bureaucratic organizations which allegedly encourage economic development) throughout the state. Once these monies 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.
Garner said he wants the current process changed so that these funds would instead be appropriated by the full Legislature.
What I want to see is the General Improvement Fund end, both the program and in the statutes. What I want to do is instead of that money going to projects is for it to go to tax breaks or for the money to be used for improving our education system and improving our highways. I think if we were to get rid of the General Improvement Fund…those surplus funds could go to better use.
We’re going to repeal the statute so those surplus funds would go to general revenue or be used for a special session where we could decide they’d go to highways for example. It would be entered back into the legislative process and determined by the Legislature where this should be appropriated.
Basically, state funds should be approved by the state legislature, not divvied up by district and handed out like rewards unilaterally to organizations of individual legislator’s choosing.
This seems to be a common-sense reform, and we’ll find out in this session whether it’s able to garner enough support to be passed into law.
Mike Wilson, a former legislator who is currently suing the state to end the GIF program, told us in November that he didn’t think legislators would ever reform or end the program on their own. I guess the coming months will prove whether he was right or wrong.