Leader Blues

Tuesday, March 01, 2005

EDITORIAL: A modest funding plan

The bipartisan, ad hoc band of senior legislators who took it upon themselves to develop a plan for building and renovating Arkansas’ substandard schools finally delivered this week, and the reflexive response is “why did you bother?” Their plan, circulated among lawmakers Thursday, would pick up the tab for only $130 million of an estimated $1.9 billion of school improvements that a survey shows the state is obligated to undertake.

But that is too cynical. Even that sum may be beyond the political will of lawmakers, and we may owe the men who put together the plan some thanks for their courage.

The plan offered by Senators Jim Argue, Shane Broadway and David Bisbee and Rep. Jodie Mahony basically says this: The 2005 General Assembly cannot carry all the political burden of raising $2 billion or so for schools, so we will cover $130 million and let different legislatures, in 2007 and beyond, do the rest and share the liability of raising taxes or whatever other expensive remedy that they can cook up. Argue and Bisbee had said that lawmakers had made it clear to them that they would not vote for new taxes to pay for school buildings no matter how clear the mandate from the Arkansas Supreme Court. Whatever was done would have to be with the state’s existing tax resources.

So simple and politically doable is it that this plan ought to sail through with dispatch, but it won’t. The state is accumulating more than $200 million in surpluses in the treasury, owing to tight budgeting two years ago, a return of modest revenue growth after a couple of years of hard times and a nice windfall of Medicaid matching funds from Washington that the state couldn’t spend.
Under the grand plan, the state is to devote roughly half of the surplus, $100 million, next year to match local school district taxes to bring the absolutely worst school buildings up to par. Then in 2007, another $50 million would be taken out of current tax receipts to pay for more. But $20 million of the $150 million total would just reimburse school districts that have already done their duty by borrowing money and building schools. School districts that have taxed, borrowed and built good schools on their own resent the state now spending hundreds of millions of dollars to subsidize communities that cared so little that they did not tax themselves to build good schools for their children.

The Supreme Court in 2003 said many of the schools across Arkansas were woefully inadequate and that it was ultimately the responsibility of the state to see that schools were adequate and equal, even if local school authorities were slackers. But the legislature is insisting that local schools still tote half the cost, at least on average.

We do not underestimate the difficulty the leaders had in crafting a facilities program that can carry a majority of the legislature. The old sectional differences are hard to bridge. The prosperous hill counties have relatively good schools because property wealth made it easier. The poverty-stricken lowlands have afforded poor programs and the schools usually are blights. A couple of northwestern counties, where growth has been stupendous, want state assistance to build for burgeoning enrollments. Every legislator wants to be sure that his district gets an equal share of whatever the state spends. Few want to pay taxes to benefit other regions of the state.

Little Rock and a few other districts with high property wealth per child will stand to get almost nothing from all the spending yet a sizable portion of the state budget is borne by Little Rock taxpayers.

It calls for lawmakers as well as all of us to listen to our better instincts, shun selfish impulses and support the common good.
But too many legislators cannot overcome their baser instincts. For the past decade, they have adopted the practice of carving out a portion of the budget every two years for personal largesse. Each legislator produces from one to a half-dozen projects in his or her district to fund from state tax receipts. It’s a chance to be photographed handing a check for a softball field, a 4-H building, a swimming pool or sidewalks. The $100 million would come from that source and to many legislators, like Randy Laverty of Jasper, that is unacceptable. He said he wanted to please voters back home, not the Supreme Court. Apparently the voters back home don’t care about their schools.

This plan needs embroidering not dismantling. Lawmakers should pass it and pray that their successors in 2007 have greater will and that no one sues in the interim.