NWA EDITORIAL: Good money after bad

With court ruling, GIF practice should cease

Posted: November 7, 2017 at 1 a.m.

"It's not cheating if you don't get caught."

How many times have we heard this misguided evaluation of morally dubious intent? Such thinking let's one off the hook for all sorts of failures, infractions or sins.

What’s the point?

Now that the Supreme Court has ruled lawmaker-controlled, General Improvement Fund allocations to be unconstitutional, disbursement of the money should cease.

Not to get into the coaching debate, but the biggest public exposure of morally bankrupt practices could certainly be the once-upon-a-time football coach who crashed his motorcycle while giving his girlfriend a ride. You know, the girlfriend he had put on the payroll of a public university. You know, the coach who was married to someone else. You know, the coach who tried to cover it all up by lying to his employer.

So in all that time before it all came crashing down, was it not cheating? Did lying about it only qualify as lying once the lies were discovered?

OK, lets bring this down to a more reasonable level: If you're driving (not necessarily a motorcycle) 75 mph in a stretch of highway marked with a 60-mph maximum, is that breaking the law?

Of course it is.

Organizations around Arkansas that have relied on cash grants from the Legislature's General Improvement Fund face a similar quandary, but not one of their own making. The Arkansas Supreme Court has recently ruled it's unconstitutional for individual legislators to direct millions in surplus General Improvement Fund grants to pet projects through regional economic development offices. According to this newspaper's research, lawmakers have directed more than $50 million to specific projects since 2013.

We've all gotten a lot more familiar with so-called GIF money since January, when we learned former state Rep. Micah Neal of Springdale pleaded guilty to accepting a bribe to use his influence as a lawmaker to direct GIF money to Ecclesia College, a private Bible college in Springdale, and an unrelated addiction treatment center. Three other men, including ex-state Sen. Jon Woods of Springdale, face fraud and other charges related to the case.

Folks in Central Arkansas have gotten familiar with the funding mechanism in part through litigation pressed by former Rep. Mike Wilson, who sued to have the GIF funding process ruled illegal. It was Wilson's case that led to the most recent Supreme Court decision.

The problem for several organizations is they've been counting on the money pledged to them by lawmakers. Wilson has asked that more than $2.5 million in the Central Arkansas situation be sent back to the state's treasury. An official who oversees disbursement of the funding, however, said just shy of $1 million is left from what now has been declared illegal allocations.

An example: More than $50,000 is supposed to go to an organization working to build a monument to Arkansas Gold Star families on the state Capitol Grounds. These families are ones that lost loved ones in military service.

More court hearings are expected.

But really, how can our state government continue to follow funding decisions rendered through a process that has now been rendered unconstitutional, no matter how good the cause? If state government doesn't operate by the rule of law, exactly what can anyone expect of it?

In criminal court cases, the government is on occasion prohibited from shoring up its prosecution if evidence is obtained through legally questionable means. Such rulings declare that the "fruit of a poisonous tree" shall not benefit the government's case.

With GIF money now deemed unconstitutional by the state's highest court, can an argument be made to continue letting the money flow? In most if not all circumstances, our legal system would not allow anyone else to continue benefiting from resources obtained illegally. Why would this situation be different?

State legislators are not elected to become state disbursement agents. As we've witnessed, giving individuals control over large sums of money is a recipe for corruption. The farther the state gets away from anything that looks like General Improvement Fund allocations, the better.

Commentary on 11/07/2017