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Judge: Almost $1M in surplus cash must go back to state

February 21, 2018

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) — An Arkansas judge has ruled that almost $1 million in state economic development funding must be returned to public reserves.

The nearly $970,000 would have paid for new restrooms at a Ward baseball park, an electric generator for a Cabot animal shelter, a jail in England and books for a library program in Pulaski County, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reported .

But Circuit Judge Chris Piazza ruled on Tuesday that an October decision by the Arkansas Supreme Court clearly requires the state to get its money back.

Piazza also ruled that about a third of the money must go toward paying the legal costs of Mike Wilson, a former Democratic lawmaker who brought the lawsuit that led to the high-court ruling that legislators had illegally funded a grant program out of the state General Improvement Fund.

Wilson said that money will go to his lawyer, but state attorneys argued that none of the money could go toward legal fees. An appeal of Piazza’s decision is expected.

Tuesday’s hearing was for Piazza to decide what to do with the money once the Supreme Court ruled it could not be spent the way lawmakers wanted.

The high court found that the way lawmakers allocated state funds to the grant program was too vague to satisfy requirements in the state constitution that each item of legislative spending be specifically described. The grant program was intended to promote economic development.

The lawsuit filed in 2016 is the third time in nearly a dozen years that Wilson has sued over how lawmakers spend money from the improvement fund, which holds the state’s surplus tax revenue and interest income. Since that lawsuit, a federal probe into how money was used by two nonprofit organizations has led to two Republican lawmakers pleading guilty and resigning their positions after investigators found they defrauded money from the grant program.

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Information from: Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, http://www.arkansasonline.com

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