Leader Blues

Tuesday, April 12, 2005

EDITORIAL>> Our sorry legislature

It is the nature of the Arkansas General Assembly, which does the state’s business once every two years, that it will end in frenzy and confusion, although ordinarily the lawmakers wrap it up not with accusations but with congratulations, whether they are merited or not. This time, the sense of failure and the scent of scandal are everywhere palpable.

And why not? The legislature defaulted on its first sworn duty, which was to put Arkansas’ public education system in order. It had taken a few laudable steps to do that a year ago, goaded by an order of the Supreme Court that it comply with the state Constitution’s mandate that the state provide a suitable, efficient and equal education for all the state’s children. Assured that the 2005 legislature would complete the task, the Supreme Court closed the long-running Lake View school case.

On Wednesday, David Matthews of Lowell, the former legislator and school litigator who had praised the ‘04 legislature before the Supreme Court, lectured senators on their manifest failure. He said he had expected better of them. He will petition the Supreme Court to revive the lawsuit and hold the legislature accountable for reneging on its commitments. The school litigation, which has beleaguered the state and called attention to our demoralizing failures with our children for 25 years, now yawns before us again.

Next year was to be the great leap forward, but the budget thrown together this week allows no increase in the per-pupil spending by schools for 2006, the most resounding failure in living memory. Even the minimalist budget depends upon unlikely scenarios to produce revenues. Someone believes in the rosy economic future perpetually claimed by the Bush administration. By the middle of the fiscal cycle, the state will find that it cannot sustain even the budget that the legislature adopted. It granted too many tax breaks for special interests before the grab-bagging became so embarrassing that the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee last week finally called a halt. The legislature ended the income tax surcharge and refused to extend the tax on wealthy estates, going along with President Bush’s reward to the nation’s wealthy.

Arkansas has levied a tax on great inheritances since 1909. In the past 10 years the tax has added more than $400 million to the treasury, nearly all of it from huge estates. From now on, not a dime. Working people will pick up the slack.

Schools will be cheated indirectly by other miscalculations of this legislature.

Unless the courts stop them, local governments will transfer millions of dollars of taxes levied for the schools to projects to help developers who want to build shopping malls and other commercial districts. This week, the legislature perfected legislation that will take $20 million or so a year in perpetuity from the state’s general fund if a mega-industry needs it. The money would come primarily from education budgets.

But the most glaring default was the legislature’s decision to devote no more than $119 million to school construction. It will offer that much in matching state grants to school districts the next two years, and it made no provision for there ever being anything more. The Supreme Court said the state had to provide equal school facilities for all children, and a legislative study showed that more than $2 billion would be needed to bring decrepit schools across the state up to par.

The state in three months will have a $240 million surplus that it could spend as a down payment on that obligation. But at week’s end legislators were near blows on how much of that sum they would divide among themselves to hand out locally to cement their re-elections.

Here is how dismal the scene was at week’s end: The good guys were insisting that not a dime more than $38 million be stolen from the schools for personal pork-barrel projects while the greedheads were insisting on lots more.

That qualifies for leadership in the term-limited legislature of 2005.