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Pet projects strike out

But will legislators keep on batting?

For the third time in the past decade, this state’s highest court has ruled against letting legislators use a multimillion-dollar slush fund to promote their political repute at public expense. Here’s hoping the third time will prove the charm and this sneaky way around the state’s constitution will have hit a dead end at last.

Article 5, Section 29 of that far-sighted document explicitly says all appropriations must be “distinctly stated.” Yet the more stubborn members of the legislative branch have insisted on setting up what are called General Improvement Funds whose principal object would seem to be improving only their own political status. Since these bountiful funds allow them to claim credit for local projects.

To cite the state Supreme Court’s latest ruling against this nefarious practice, a ruling that was written by Justice Robin Wynne, this elaborate run-around is unconstitutional on its face. Case concluded at last. Let’s just hope it stays concluded.

Congratulations are due Counselor Mike Wilson, Esq., of Jacksonville, a former state legislator but still a public servant because he’s fought this battle time after time after time in order to preserve both the state’s constitution and the integrity of its legislative process. The decision by the state’s highest court reversed one by a circuit judge in Pulaski County — the Hon. Chris Piazza — and remanded the case back to the lower court so it could decide what to do with whatever money is left in this General Improvement Fund by now, if any. The next assignment awaiting the Legislature’s attention is to drive a stake through the heart of such a self-serving law to make sure it does not rise from the dead, perhaps in some new but equally offensive form.

Governor Asa Hutchinson wasted no time in praising the high court’s decision. “I am pleased with today’s Supreme Court decision,” he said, “because it raised constitutional concerns over legislative use of General Improvement Funds. With the recent news about abuses on the use of GIF, I will be supportive of legislation that will permanently end the practice.” The governor’s own budget this year included no appropriation for lawyers to (mis)direct in this perverse way. Hooray for him.

“If we ever look at funding projects with surplus [money] again,” says the majority leader of the state Senate, Jim Hendren, “it needs to be a transparent process.” Here’s hoping the Ledge doesn’t even look at this thoroughly bad idea ever again; it’s a standing invitation to waste, fraud and abuse. A much better approach when state government finds itself flush with funds is simply to cut taxes — so We the People can decide how to spend our money ourselves. Let’s cut out all the middle men and let the people decide how to spend, save and/or invest what is, after all, their own money. Regnat Populus! Let the people rule — not the politicos.

Scott Trotter, whose name will be familiar to those who follow the news about this state’s reformers, has joined the applause for Mike Wilson’s victory before the state’s highest court but would go much further. “Mike Wilson has won an important victory for Arkansas taxpayers,” he notes. “However, I am concerned that a future legislature may seek a path to circumvent this narrow ruling . . . . For that reason, I will urge the governor and legislature to pass a law that not only prohibits the practice of individual legislators’ designating the recipient of state funds, but also exposes them to a criminal penalty if they do.”

There. That step might get their attention. For the price of liberty is not only eternal vigilance, but a willingness to crack down on miscreants who are caught playing games with the people’s money.

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