Michael Kenneth (Mike) Wilson (1944–)
Michael Kenneth (Mike) Wilson’s father started the first bank in Jacksonville (Pulaski County) and was instrumental in building the town from a hamlet of 400 in 1940 to a city of 30,000 by the century’s end. Following the elder Wilson into community service, Mike Wilson became the city’s pre-eminent political power, representing it in the Arkansas General Assembly for the last quarter of the twentieth century and, as a private attorney, twice bringing lawsuits that spelled an end to a succession of schemes to carve out millions of dollars of state tax funds every year for projects that would be politically helpful to lawmakers. In Wilson’s illegal-exaction lawsuits, the Supreme Court of Arkansas declared the funding schemes—called the General Improvement Fund (GIF)—unconstitutional three times, in 2006, 2007, and 2017, and distribution of GIFs was finally halted.
Mike Wilson was born on September 28, 1944, one of three children of Kenneth Pat Wilson and Ruth Nixon Wilson. Pat Wilson started Jacksonville State Bank in 1949 and was its president for many years. Mike Wilson’s maternal grandfather, Hugh Nixon, was a farmer, merchant, and the Pulaski County chancery clerk. Wilson would eventually settle on his grandfather’s farmstead.
Led by Pat Wilson, the family’s most consequential contribution to the community’s history and development was persuading the U.S. Department of Defense in 1951 to locate a major Strategic Air Command base, now Little Rock Air Force Base, in the town. Pat Wilson deeded land and helped raise more than a million dollars to secure land for the base, which was activated in 1955. Other defense-related developments and medical and educational facilities followed.
Mike Wilson graduated from Jacksonville High School and attended the U.S. Air Force Academy at Colorado Springs for three years before an injury forced him to quit. He transferred to the University of Arkansas (UA) in Fayetteville (Washington County) and graduated in 1968 with a BS in law.
He went to work for Attorney General Joe Purcell as an assistant attorney general. In 1970, he was elected an alderman in Jacksonville. In 1972, he was elected to the first of twelve terms in the Arkansas House of Representatives, coinciding with the elections of Governors Dale Bumpers, David Pryor, Bill Clinton, and Jim Guy Tucker. (He usually ran unopposed.) This was a period that saw new taxes as well as education reforms that raised the pay of teachers, performance standards for students, and accreditation criteria for schools. Wilson supported nearly all of them, as well as tougher ethics rules for public officials. He was for many years chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, which handled all legislation dealing with the courts and criminal and civil law. He managed a bill—Act 796 of 1993—that made sweeping changes in workers’ compensation laws, lowering worker compensation insurance costs to among the lowest in the region.
The House Judiciary Committee handled legislation dealing with higher compensation of judges and prosecutors. In Wilson’s last term, a Little Rock (Pulaski County) municipal judge, William W. Watt, handed Wilson an envelope as he was leaving the House chamber. Wilson stuck the envelope in his pocket and later opened it and found a check for $1,500 from the Arkansas Municipal Judges Association, which was seeking higher compensation for the judges. The salary matter was in Wilson’s committee. Considering the check a bribe, he telephoned the Arkansas State Police director and dictated a complaint against the judge, who was confronted with charges of unethical conduct by the state’s Judicial Discipline and Disability Commission. Watt resigned and was barred from holding a judicial office for eight years.
Wilson’s concern with political ethics—he supported efforts to enact ethical standards for elected officials in 1989—brought him some recognition after he left the legislature in 1997. Legislators and Governor Mike Huckabee were engaged in a dispute about whether choosing projects that would be funded from surplus tax collections every year was a legislative or executive prerogative. A gentleman’s agreement split the responsibility. Senators and representatives developed a system whereby each lawmaker was allotted a sum of money at each session and introduced bills appropriating money for projects in their districts, from traffic lights, museums, and memorials to volunteer fire departments. Wilson thought it was an improvident way to spend taxes and that it also violated a constitutional prohibition against local and special legislation. He filed suit in 2006; he was the plaintiff and acted as his own attorney. His case went from the Pulaski County Circuit Court to the Arkansas Supreme Court twice. The Supreme Court ruled both times (Wilson v. Weiss, 360 Ark. 300, and Wilson v. Weiss, 370 Ark. 205) that the acts were local or special legislation and voided them. The legislators and the recipients of the grants were often his former colleagues and friends.
Legislators abandoned that method but came up with a less obvious scheme for funding what was normally called “pork barrel.” Each year, the legislature enacted a number of large appropriations for each of the state’s eight regional economic development and planning districts that were to be used for economic development. A special legislative audit of the Northwest Arkansas Development District in 2015 showed vaguely how the plan worked. Individual legislators in a development district, each of whom had a specific allotment (a senator more than a representative), would inform the regional development office by telephone, letter, or email of projects he or she wanted to fund from the districts’ appropriations, and the development offices sent checks to the recipients notifying them of the legislator who was responsible for the gift of state funds. A freedom-of-information query supplied the details, including earmarked grants by a number of legislators in northwestern Arkansas to a tiny and largely unknown religious school, which kicked some of the money back to legislators. The ensuing federal investigation led to criminal charges against a number of legislators and recipient groups. Similar arrangements were made in the other seven planning districts, but there were no other criminal investigations.
Wilson filed suit in 2016, again representing himself, and the Supreme Court in 2017 (Wilson v. Walther, 2017 Ark. 279) again declared the system an illegal exaction and a violation of the prohibition against local and special legislation. The legislature abandoned the arrangements.
Wilson practiced law for more than fifty years but slowed down as he approached eighty. An avid sportsman and chairman of the Nature Conservancy of Arkansas, he was instrumental in creating the Holland Bottoms Wildlife Management Area, made up of 6,000 acres of hunting and fishing domain in Lonoke and Pulaski counties. He was a member and chairman of the city hospital commission for about twenty years and worked for years to sever Jacksonville from the Pulaski County Rural School District and create an independent district. With Sammye Miller, his second wife, Wilson reared six children.
For additional information:
“Mike Wilson: Man of the Year.” Arkansas Leader, January 6, 2017.
Widner, Amy. “Former Legislator Says with Jacksonville, Giving Is Receiving,” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, Three Rivers Edition, November 23, 2008, pp. 107, 110.
Little Rock, Arkansas
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