State Decides to Help Itself

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Nov. 8, 2004--Voters in one of the nation's most anemic economic states have decided to give their state a chance to improve its economic standing.

On Super Tuesday, voters in the state of Arkansas, home of the Bowie knife, America's only diamond mines, Tyson Chicken and retail titan Wal-Mart, handedly approved a constitutional amendment allowing the state legislature to issue funds for economic development, without going to the people first.

"Local chambers banded together to get this bill passed," said Kenny Hall, the vice president of government affairs in the Arkansas Chamber of Commerce. "Getting state funding has been such a tedious task in the past; it was time we updated our constitution."

Led by Jim Pickens, the recently retired head of Arkansas' department of economic development, the amendment received 64% approval and gives the state a chance to compete in "super projects" like steel and paper mills as well as auto plants, that could bring in thousands of much-needed jobs.

"We're the only state in the deep south that doesn't have a car manufacturing plant," said Pickens, leader of the movement to get the bill passed. "All of the surrounding states don't have these kinds of hurdles for funding--we're just trying to make our state more competitive."

In 2003, Toyota decided to build their new Tundra plant in Texas, near San Antonio, instead of Marion, Ark., a plant that will reportedly provide more than 2,000 jobs while pumping out more than 100,000 trucks a year.

"Because of our able workforce, central location, strategic rail and water ways Arkansas is a great place for large operations," Pickens said. "This amendment will make us more competitive in the future."

But some opponents say this it's just another form of corporate welfare and point to more important needs for this type of proactive political action.

"It's a disappointment," Mark Knuckles of the Arkansas Libertarian Party said. "We have schools that are in dire need of money."

But Hall points out the new amendment allows the legislature to open funding on such an opportunity in as little as three days where the current system can take up to two years to approve an endeavor.

"We now have to have a normal session of the legislature, approve it there and then put it to a popular vote in the next election," Hall said. "By the time that is all done, the plant would already have been built in another state."

The existing system, according to Dr. John Ferguson, the state's historian, is a relic of the Reconstruction era where legislators issued bonds to support industrialization, and eventually never paid back those bonds. In 1934 an amendment was added to the state constitution mandating that the state could no longer issue bonds without majority approval of the state's voters.

With the passing of this bill, the states 82nd amendment, bonds can only be issued to employers who will invest no less than $500 million and create no fewer than 500 jobs.

"This bill is simply a win-win situation for the state," Pickens added.





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