Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Let the sunshine in

It's been a great year to be an Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reader.  As if to make up for six years of neglect (and sometimes outright complicity) in l'affaire Hardin at my university, the newspaper has gone on a FOIA tear through state government, uncovering all sorts of questionable practices, favoritism, waste, and lack of oversight.

First there were the non-retired retirees.  A few years ago, legislators worried that government offices were losing their most experienced human capital to retirement, and accordingly passed a law allowing those offices to re-hire retired workers after a short mandatory waiting period.  Whaddya know, this year the Dem-Gaz found that several highly-paid state employees had gamed the system.  They retired with the understanding that the office would re-hire them after the 90 days were up, thereby enabling them to draw both their salary and their pension simultaneously.  In a few cases, they never actually quit working -- just took their names off the payroll.

Then came the story on state vehicles.  Turns out some elected officials were being granted use of a state vehicle to commute to and from work, but weren't counting the value of use as income because of -- get this -- a constitutional provision stating that elected officials can't receive any income over and above their legally-set salaries.  If the state was giving them a car, the reasoning went, it couldn't be income, because they were prohibited from receiving any more income!

That led to a sweeping investigation by the paper of various agencies' practices regarding state vehicles, uncovering one agency with more cars than employees.

Today's exercise in truthtelling was the revelation that in Pulaski County (the home of Little Rock, the state capital), the assessor has been granting nine pastors exemptions from property taxes on the homes that they own.  The law allows an exemption for church-owned parsonages, but citing "custom," the county assessor gave it to everyone who asked whom she could verify were full-time ministers.  The fact that only nine asked is a tribute both to how few people knew about this lucrative loophole, and to how lucrative it was for those who made the effort to benefit -- their houses ranged from the $300,000 to $600,000 range (in a state where you would have to search long and hard to find a $600,000 house).

I take great delight in these investigations.  They are Arkansas newspapering at its finest: uncovering unfairness, waste, and profiteering in practices that people justify based on the way things have always been.  Long live local journalism!

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