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No easy path for Arkansas-backed local projects

LITTLE ROCK -- The Arkansas Supreme Court's ruling striking down a grant system used to fund local projects didn't necessarily kill outright lawmakers' efforts to divert surplus money to pet needs in their districts. It did, however, leave few options for reviving pork barrel projects that have already become politically toxic due to federal investigations.

Justices last week overturned a lower court's ruling in favor of $2.9 million awarded to one of eight planning and development districts that were given money during the 2015 legislative session. In the 5-2 ruling, justices ruled money given to the districts to be distributed for various local projects violated a state constitutional requirement that budget measures distinctly state how the money will be spent.

Though they punted on whether the grants violate a constitutional ban on strictly local legislation -- similar to the practice of directly funding pet projects that was struck down more than a decade ago -- justices may have effectively killed a spending mechanism that already was running out of favor at the state Capitol.

The legislators adopted the new funding plan in response to the court's rulings in 2006 and 2007 striking down their longtime practice of funding local needs such as sidewalk improvements and ballparks. Those cases and last week's ruling were spurred by challenges from former state Rep. Mike Wilson, who said the grant system left no accountability and amounted to a laundering operation for lawmakers to still have their pet projects funded.

"If no specific purpose is contained in an appropriation, then the taxpayers don't have any yardstick to measure the result by," Wilson said. "In other words, the requirement establishes a method for accountability."

The ruling comes as the Legislature's handling of local project money faces scrutiny from federal investigators.

Republican former state Sen. Jon Woods and two others have pleaded not guilty to corruption charges after prosecutors said they participated in a scheme under which Woods allegedly directed money to Ecclesia College in return for kickbacks, and are set to go to trial later this year. Republican former state Rep. Micah Neal pleaded guilty in January to one count of fraud related to the case. Separately, federal court documents show that a search warrant seeking material from Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, involves $46,500 for work at a Fort Smith sports complex. Files has not been charged with a crime and says he is cooperating with law enforcement.

Earlier this year, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and lawmakers agreed to not direct any surplus money toward legislative projects. Instead, the money went toward a rainy day fund that could be tapped for emergency needs. Even before the ruling, Hutchinson had stated his opposition to the local project funding, saying the money needs to go toward statewide needs and not be subject to legislative prerogative.

There's still uncertainty whether this will end local project funding altogether. By not outlawing the grant system altogether, the court may have left the door open for lawmakers to find a way to revive the system by providing more details about how the money will be spent.

Defenders of the local project money have said the funding is needed to help cash-strapped communities around the state fulfill a host of needs and services that may not otherwise be met. The indictments against the former lawmakers, and fear of others getting ensnared in an ongoing probe, have made it unlikely lawmakers will want to wade into the issue again in the near future.

How the Legislature responds will determine whether the ruling settles the debate over local project funding, or is just a prelude to a new fight.

Andrew DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005.

Editorial on 10/10/2017

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