Friday, January 18, 2013

Reform vs. Remessing on Commissions

I was interested to hear that Senator David Burnett (D) Osceola, introduced a referred amendment that would call for scrapping the current method of selecting Commissioners for both the Highway Commission and the State Game and Fish Commission.   Here is some of the report....

Under Burnett’s Senate Joint Resolution 3, two members of the Game and Fish Commission would be elected from each of the state’s four congressional districts and a member would be elected statewide. The commission now has seven members appointed by the governor.
Two members of the Highway Commission would be elected from each of the state’s four congressional districts and one member would be statewide and serve as its chairman.
The commission is now made up of five members appointed by the governor.
Burnett said he introduced the proposal because both commissions “do pretty well what they please. In this day and age we need to have the input of the citizens, and that’s all I am trying to do.”
Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, is co-sponsoring Burnett’s proposal.
A spokesman for the Game and Fish Commission said the commission opposes the proposed constitutional amendment.
 Look, I am all for altering this crazy commission structure, especially on these two commissions which spend so much of the public's money unaccountably.   It leads to a malady I call fiefdom government.  Power is not divided, as when a legislative, judicial, and executive branch all balance against one another.  Rather, power is fragmented into a bunch of unaccountable little Kingdoms Unto Themselves.

So why am I unhappy with the proposal to make appointed Commissioners elected Commissioners?    Because it throws away a perfect opportunity to do what really ought to be done: abolish both of these commissions, especially the Highway Commission, and return their functions to the legislature itself where they properly belong.

Let's consider highways.   We already have a Highway Department in the Executive Branch and a Transportation Committee in the Legislative Branch.   That latter committee has little to do other than rubber stamp the decisions of the Highway Commission.   That is why most legislators consider it one of the least important committees to serve on.   It ought to be one of the most important.   They spend a billion taxpayer dollars a year on vital infrastructure.  

The federal government does not have a separate entity called a Highway Commission which does the job that the House or Senate Transportation Committee ought to be doing.  The legislature performs that legislative function itself- as it ought to.  It is the same way in many states.   There is simply no reason to transfer the function of spending public money away from the legislature in favor of a Commission.   This Commission will be dominated by special interests whether they are appointed or elected.   That is just the way things happen when you create a group of decision makers who have a narrow scope.

If I am in the highway business and try to buy an entire legislature then I have to compete with all the other interests out there.  But if the power to spend is transferred to a Commission whose scope is narrowed to highways, then I have a much better chance to buy them.   Legislators with the potential to represent many interests don't need me.   Maybe they can be financed by pro-gun money, or pro-chicken money or whatever other interests they can represent just because that is who they are.   But Highway Commissioners who are elected will get money from only one place- the Highway Lobby.   That makes them much more vulnerable to being bought off and acting against the public interests, even if elected.   They only have a narrow group out there with reasonable potential to fund their campaigns.  And because the districts are so big, campaigning will be a lot more expensive than campaigning for a legislative seat.

When we were opposing the sales tax increase for highways and interest payment and bond fees (i.e. more money for the same broken system) Better Spending First proposed a better plan for highways.    Return the function of allocating public money to the legislature, where it belongs.  End the duplication of functions.   Have a sub committee for each congressional district who budgets for roads using the fuel taxes and registration fees from that district, with another pool of money divided among the districts by number of road miles.

This plan is just, and therefore liable to be opposed by all sides.   The big boys don't want fair, they want to game the system to take money from your pockets and put it in their contributor's pockets.  Democrats who are used to using NW Arkansas and Central Arkansas as an ATM machine on highways will hate it because they can't build roads in their territory with someone else's money.   Those days may be over anyway, but they probably don't know it yet.

The Republicans will hate it because it would allow Democrats in the 4th and 1st Districts to control the highway money in those areas, since they would likely have the most members on the sub-committees in those districts.     Now that they have a narrow majority, the idea of decentralizing power does not seem as attractive as it was when they controlled NWA and the Democrats had the rest of the state.

And of course the business interests who control highway spending now will hate the idea.   That would too messy for them, with so much public input into the spending of public money.   They would want far fewer people to have a say in the matter.   That way, they can "get things done", with or without the approval of those who provided the funding used to do them.

I urge the legislature to take back, on behalf of the citizens, the power which rightfully belongs to them.  Reform Arkansas' highway system, don't re-mess it!

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