Rodeos, Fire Departments among Local Projects Bill Benficiaries in Arkansas

LITTLE ROCK (AP) -- A rodeo once was the main attraction for the annual Fourth of July picnic in Caraway, drawing big crowds of visitors to the bedroom community of 1,400, a half-hour's drive southeast of Jonesboro.

But hooves so tore up the fields on the ballpark where the event was held that officials canceled the show.

With volunteer labor and proceeds from a land sale, the city began building its own multipurpose rodeo arena last year. Construction ground to a halt when the cash ran out short of completion.

The whir of saws and the bang of hammers should resume soon, Mayor Joe South said, with a $50,000 infusion of state money allocated to the city from the General Improvement Fund. The bill was adopted as one of the last items of business during the regular legislative session that recessed last week.

''We normally have thousands of people here the week of the Fourth of July picnic. It's been done for 59 years. But without a place to have the rodeo, our Fourth of July weekend has dwindled some,'' South said. ''With this entertainment, we plan on building that back up.''

The arena is among thousands of local projects in communities statewide targeted to benefit from the $52 million general improvement allotment that legislators put aside for programs in their districts. The funding is being provided at the same time the state will have to tap its property tax relief fund for $40 million to keep its budget balanced over the next two years.

Also, public school districts will go without increases in minimum state aid next year, an omission that prompted a court filing last week that threatened to bring renewed Arkansas Supreme Court scrutiny of state funding of public schools.

Millions of general improvement dollars were earmarked for higher education institutions and other state projects in local communities. Millions more will go to a range of strictly local uses ranging from senior citizens centers and rural volunteer fire departments to a stage for a duck-calling contest to a rodeo arena.

Use of GIF money has been a lightning rod for criticism in recent years as the state has struggled with revenue shortfalls and a costly overhaul of a public education system that the high court declared unconstitutional in November 2002.

Two years ago, the regular session ended without lawmakers passing a state budget because of a stalemate between Senate leaders and a coalition of House tax opponents over whether to raise taxes or use capital projects money to help keep cash-strapped government programs afloat.

In a special session, the Legislature raised $100 million in new taxes to shore up the budget and allocated $90 million to local capital improvement projects.

During the 2004 special session on education, the Joint Budget Committee voted down a proposal to earmark General Improvement Fund money exclusively to public education. The Legislature then raised $370 million in new taxes to pay for sweeping education reforms.

This year, as legislative leaders worked to craft a 10-year plan to improve school facilities, a group of senators that came to be known as ''The Brotherhood'' pressured legislative budget conferees for $30 million more than originally proposed for local projects.

The group got commitments for potentially $20 million more, $15 million from the state unclaimed property fund and another $5 million from state reserves put aside to shore up the budget in case of a revenue shortfall.

The Legislature committed $104 million to undertake the most essential school repairs over the next two years. The figure was nearly $50 million less than originally planned.

Gov. Mike Huckabee called the Legislature's general improvement spending ''irresponsible and reckless.''

Sen. Dave Bisbee, R-Rogers, co-chairman of the budget committee, said the push for more money was fueled by ''greed.''

''It's not greed, it's need,'' countered Sen. Bob Johnson, D-Bigelow.

''Members aren't out there taking this money home in a haphazard manner. They need to come out in our communities and see how it's being used, for senior centers, fire departments,'' Johnson said. ''It's easy to sit up here with all the trappings and poke fun. But these folks pay taxes, too.''

The Caraway mayor said $50,000 in state money to complete the town's $125,000 rodeo arena will have a positive ripple effect throughout his part of rural northeast Arkansas.

The town has a volunteer fire department and a volunteer ambulance service that's the only ambulance service in the county that serves area residents at no charge, the mayor said.

The services are financed largely through auctions, an Easter egg hunt and other fund-raisers that could be increased and expanded at the new rodeo facility, he said.

He said he considered the general improvement funds the project is set to receive money well spent.

''We're a part of the state, and mostly this area in northeast Arkansas, with the exception of Jonesboro and (Arkansas State University), is kind of neglected,'' South said. ''I feel very strongly that this should be used in the small municipalities. We don't have much income.

''Some people may call it a pork-barrel project. But it's for the people of this community and it's very beneficial and will be put to good use.''