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JOHN BRUMMETT: GIF giving headaches

The state's long-suffering and newly controlling Republicans, especially those from Northwest Arkansas, have always contended that the old one-party Democratic state legislative culture was corrupt.

No one can much argue. There were fine and honorable people in that good ol' boy Legislature. And there were others who weren't.

Republicans, especially those from the northwest corner who long toiled as a pitiable minority, have seen themselves as reformers. Now in charge, they see themselves imposing a new righteousness.

There's irony, then, that the current Arkansas Republican Legislature lives under a looming cloud of alleged corruption that currently hangs primarily from Fort Smith up to Springdale.

But the point is neither partisan nor regional. Instead, it is human and universal.

Any sizable collection of people will have bad apples. And giving legislators specific control over a pot of taxpayer money will inevitably prove too tempting for the lower-grade apples.

Real reform would require putting up walls between legislators--whether pristine or rotten, Republican or Democrat--and the taxpayer money they are constitutionally responsible for voting to appropriate, but not to take as their own.

To my everlasting shame, I wrote columns in the early 1990s in support of Democratic legislators who wrested control from then-Gov. Mike Huckabee of some of the state's biennial surplus--the General Improvement Fund--and helped themselves to it for "local projects" back home.

I was young, which is no excuse. Huckabee could be irksome, which isn't either.

An inexperienced legislator constrained by term limits could make himself important only one way--with GIF money, his or her own, as legislators came to consider it.

It soon became apparent that it was all a horrible idea, of course. Legislators decided to divvy up sums of this surplus equally among themselves for personal control of how it would be spent--presumably, but not necessarily, for volunteer fire departments or community centers or other capital projects in their surely needy districts.

The money didn't follow needs according to severity and priority. It followed legislators equally, dollar for dollar. There was no prescribed process or accountability--no pre-audit, no ongoing monitoring, no post-audit.

Then a lawsuit against the practice led to legislators pretending to reform it. They proceeded to launder their equal shares through regional planning and development districts. Those entities handed the money out, but not according to formal applications or careful consideration, but to simple legislator dictates. Legislators would call over to the districts with instructions on what to do with "my" GIF money.

You can guess what happened.

There is a little professed religion school, calling itself Ecclesia College, in Springdale. Being supposedly religion-based, it shouldn't get public money even on the up-and-up, much less another way.

Two recent former Republican legislators, a House member and a senator, have been charged with steering some of their GIF money to this college, then getting some of that money back to their pockets after they sent it to the college and the college ran it through a consultant. One of the legislators has pleaded guilty and the other was trying in vain last week to get recordings of some of his conversations kept out of the court record.

Meantime, a sitting Republican state senator, Jake Files of Fort Smith, who chairs no less than the Senate Revenue and Tax Committee, acknowledges that federal authorities have been to see him about, as he put it, the broader GIF investigation.

He has not been charged. All we can say, based on fine reporting in this newspaper, mainly, is that it seems he sought to get GIF money through his local planning and development district for his apparently struggling contracting business.

Files has specifically denied allegations of fraudulent maneuvering contained in a federal affidavit in support of a search warrant.

But the problem, you see, is not merely the opportunity for criminal corruption through kickbacks. It's that a legislator would have special knowledge of, and thus the advantage of special access to, taxpayer money he himself had directed supposedly for public purposes.

To Gov. Asa Hutchinson's and the recent legislative session's credit, there was no personal GIF money for legislators appropriated. But legislators still grumble that they have needs in their rural areas and that there is nothing wrong with addressing them.

They are quite correct.

The Legislature should identify categories of local projects suitable for state aid. Then it should assign those categories to relevant state agencies. Then it should appropriate money to those state agencies for distribution for local projects based solely on formal and carefully graded applications from the relevant local entities, not from legislators personally. Then those state agencies ought to conduct pre-auditing, ongoing monitoring and post-auditing on the flow of money.

There is a way to use state taxpayer money responsibly and transparently for legitimate local needs without bothering the FBI.

You can't reform all the people. So, you reform the system.

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John Brummett, whose column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was inducted into the Arkansas Writers' Hall of Fame in 2014. Email him at jbrummett@arkansasonline.com. Read his @johnbrummett Twitter feed.

Editorial on 09/12/2017

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