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The problem never was that state legislators used relatively small sums of state surplus money to fund capital projects improving life in the small, poor rural communities that dominate the state's politics and culture.

The problem was that legislators insisted on appropriating the money essentially to themselves for personal back-home disposition--for their aggrandizement at best and their criminal enrichment at worst.

Small rural communities lack resources. Beyond that, Arkansas does not permit true "home rule" by local governments. State government limits local taxation by types and amounts.

So, state government ought to help these communities.


What the Arkansas Supreme Court declared illegal last week was the laundering scheme of appropriating general sums for general purposes to regional planning and development districts with the unwritten understanding that legislators were specifically in charge of the money.

The laundering method had been undertaken after the court said a decade ago that legislators may not appropriate money directly and specifically for designated local projects because that was unconstitutional "local legislation."

But state aid can be distributed locally in a legal way. Otherwise, the time-honored practice of turning back portions of state motor-fuel taxes to cities and counties for streets and roads would be unconstitutional.

What the state may do is designate a pot of money for the statewide benefit of general local turnback, with the local turnback administered by the executive branch using, one would hope, an objective and strenuous process.

The bustling activity I saw at tiny Alpine in Pike County as I passed through Saturday afternoon ... it was taking place at the community center, built with state General Improvement Fund money.

Volunteer fire department buildings, aided by state GIF money, were among the nicest facilities I saw in more than one of the small communities farther along the highway toward north Howard County and on to Nashville to speak to Howard County Democrats at the Parker Westbrook Dinner.

People in small capital-poor towns deserve a gathering place. And they surely deserve modern fire protection. It's a worthy state government undertaking to help them get the equipment.

So, that evening, I was speaking before those Howard County Democrats. I was relating the thinking of the state Democratic chairman, Michael John Gray, that Arkansas Democrats must fashion a new message that connects them to real people's real problems in what is still a rural state.

Gray has talked of pre-K programs for 4-year-olds, of an infrastructure program to widen narrow two-lane roads with tiny shoulders on which the state's rural parents send their kids on Friday nights after football games, and of the importance of Medicaid expansion to keep small rural hospitals open so that people in rural Arkansas suffering heart attacks and strokes will have a competent emergency room nearby.

I glanced to the front row and saw state Sen. Larry Teague of Nashville, a conservative Democrat who has thrived through the Republican takeover of the state. He is the Senate chairman of the Joint Budget Committee.

Hey, Senator, I said, you should get with Michael John Gray and come up with a transparent, accountable and legal way to keep worthy local capital projects alive through surplus funds in the GIF. Why not be the party that gets out front to say we need to keep helping small-town Arkansas, but do it in a way that accounts to the taxpayers and keeps those so inclined from abusing the process criminally?

You could admit that, yes, Democrats are to blame for creating the flawed program in the first place. But you could remind that it was Republicans in Northwest Arkansas who took the abuse to the currently indictable level.

Teague merely looked at me. He might have been napping.

I have a plan. You take affordable sums from the surpluses, if there are any, and appropriate them to a state agency--Finance and Administration, perhaps--with a new office of local partnership.

This office would accept applications from local communities and grade them according to well-defined and rigorous standards. Applicants would consent to pre-audits, ongoing monitoring and post-audits. Awards would be restricted to one-time capital improvements, and strictly forbidden for operations or personnel. Money would be authorized only for a few clearly identified purposes--volunteer fire departments, community centers, senior citizen centers, city parks. A local match, maybe as little as 3 or 5 percent, would be newly required.

The DFA would forward to the governor's office the list of projects found to be suitable for aid. The governor would release funds for projects from the top of the list as surplus funds became available, subject to the review--but not approval--of the Legislature.

Good purposes could be served and people would have to work harder to cheat.

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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 10/10/2017

Print Headline: Fix for a broken program

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