Arkansas rethinking grant system

The Associated Press

LITTLE ROCK (AP) — Individual Arkansas lawmakers have approved more than 4,200 grants totaling more than $50 million over the past four years.

Records obtained by the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette show that the legislators approved the grants from their assigned shares of state surplus General Improvement Fund money. It takes just one state lawmaker to provide the money for such a grant.

The newspaper's review of General Improvement Fund grants came as federal authorities this year investigated at least $646,500 of those grants. Two former Springdale Republican lawmakers, Jon Woods and Micah Neal, were charged earlier this year in a reported fraud and kickback scheme involving about $600,000 in General Improvement Fund grants. In August, the FBI filed an affidavit alleging Republican Sen. Jake Files of Fort Smith used just over half the $46,500 in a grant to pay employees and kept the rest himself.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson and lawmakers halted the grants for this year as the investigations became public.

The Arkansas Supreme Court decided in October that the grant program didn't meet state constitutional requirements. Since then, lawmakers and political observers have talked about whether and how to continue the grants.

"How do you go about curing a system that was born bad, grew up bad?" asked former Democratic Rep. Mike Wilson, who twice sued to have the program declared unconstitutional.

Wilson said there are ways to build in safeguards for a revenue-sharing system like the fund.

"Create a state agency to handle the grants, make it subject to audit, put it under the direction of the governor, like any other state agency," he said. "Clean it up that way. Everybody knows how to do that."

Rison Mayor Vernon Dollar says the grants were "the lifeblood for us doing improvements that went above and beyond."


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