LITTLE ROCK, Ark. — A system of grants the Arkansas Legislature used to pay for projects around the state violates a ban on strictly local legislation and a constitutional requirement that budget measures have a distinctly stated purpose, an attorney for a former lawmaker challenging the projects told the state Supreme Court on Thursday.
Attorneys for the state and a planning district that awarded $2.9 million in such grants said the funding is constitutional since the money was distributed equally around Arkansas.
Justices heard oral arguments in the lawsuit by former state Rep. Mike Wilson, who was also behind a lawsuit that prompted the court in 2006 to bar the Legislature from directly funding local projects around the state with surplus money.
John Ogles, an attorney for Wilson, said the grants are just as bad as the old system of directly funding local projects such as ballparks and sidewalk improvements and that the legislation allocating the money provides few details about how it will be spent. He pointed to emails and text messages from lawmakers directing where they’d like the money to go.
“There is no accountability with this money,” Ogles said.
Attorneys for the state and Central Arkansas Planning and Development District, however, say the funding passes constitutional muster because the measures behind them specify they should be used for grants and that the money was divided equally among the state’s legislative districts. Wilson is appealing a judge’s decision last year to dismiss the lawsuit challenging the grants.
“What we have is a process that’s distinctly different than what the process was before,” Sam Jones, an attorney for the district, told the court.
One justice expressed skepticism about the argument that the grants aren’t violating the ban legislation that singles out a city or county since they were distributed equally around the state.
“How does equally make it constitutional?” Justice Josephine Hart asked. “Equality doesn’t keep it from being (local) legislation.”
Justice Shawn Womack, a former legislator, questioned whether the court was being asked to demand more from budget measures other than the constitutional requirement that they state a distinct purpose.
“Aren’t we going beyond just judges substituting their judgment for the elected representatives of the people but actually their judgment for the people themselves?” Womack said.
The case comes as the Legislature’s handling of local project money faces scrutiny from federal investigators.
Former state Sen. Jon Woods, the president of Ecclesia college and a consultant have pleaded not guilty to corruption charges after prosecutors said they participated in a scheme where Woods allegedly directed money to the college in return for kickbacks. Former Republican state Rep. Micah Neal pleaded guilty in January to four counts of fraud related to the case. Separately, federal court documents show that a search warrant seeking material from Sen. Jake Files involves $46,500 in GIF money 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.
Justices did not indicate when they would issue a ruling in the case.
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