Leader Blues

Wednesday, May 25, 2005

TOP STORY>> Court, legislature could clash, Bond warns

IN SHORT: The Jacksonville representative tells the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce that the state Supreme Court could tell lawmakers how much the state should spend on public school education.

By GARRICK FELDMAN
Leader editor

Rep. Will Bond (D-Jacksonville) on Tuesday raised the possibility that the state Supreme Court could take over public school education in Arkansas if justices decide later this week that the legislature has not appropriated enough money for school districts.

Bond told a luncheon meeting of the Jacksonville Chamber of Commerce that the Supreme Court, as it revisits the Lake View lawsuit, could issue a narrow ruling in favor of the 47 state school districts that have filed suit against the state for more funding.

If that happens, the court would appoint a special master again who would decide how much the state should spend on public education, Bond said.

“They’re becoming the legislature,” Bond complained, referring to the Supreme Court. “They’ve gone about as far as they can without a showdown.”

“We’re treading on dangerous ground,” he warned, saying that the court could become a superlegislature.
“Can courts dictate spending?” Bond asked. “This is a separation of powers issue.”

Bond, who is running for House speaker next year, laid out the possibility that the court could double the amount the state should spend on school building improvements.

“What if the special master says the legislature should spend $200 million for facilities?” Bond asked. “They’re taking over the job of the legislature.”

He said the legislature appropriated $100 million for school building improve ments, but if the special master demands more spending, the governor would have to call a special session.

“What if the governor won’t call a special session?” Bond went on. “He’s the only one who can do it. It’s a pretty scary thing.”
Special masters were appointed last year but took no action as they let the legislature decide how to fund education.

Bond thinks the legislature during the last special session spent about as much as it could with the limited resources it has.

Per pupil spending has in-creased to $5,400, and the legislature has allowed for additional funding for the poorest districts, although the figures are the same for next year, which is why many school districts are suing the state.

Compounding the problem of state funding is a disparity among school districts when it comes to teacher salaries. Bond pointed out that the Bentonville School District has given teachers $5,400 in teacher raises, while poor districts cannot match that and will lose teachers to better-paying districts.

The state could equalize teacher salaries, Bond said, but he didn’t think that was a good idea.

Arkansas faces two immediate problems, he said: Lack of available revenues and inexperienced legislators who must leave office after just a few years at the Capitol.

Bond, who believes Arkansas is not investing enough in its future, said the state is next-to-last in property taxes, with $371 per capita, compared with, say, more than $1,100 in Texas.

But Arkansas has one of the highest sales-tax rates in the nation, ranking fifth after the latest eighth-cent sales tax for education.
Expenses are rising not only for education, but also for the Department of Human Services, which has seen a 29.5 percent increase in its 2005 budget. The Department of Correction is up 12 percent, he said.

“These are significant budget issues that we have to deal with,” the representative said.

With a $15 billion budget, Arkan-sas’ revenues are not keeping up with its needs. General revenues are ex-pected to increase to $4.7 billion in 2005-06, up from $4.6 billion in 2004-05.

Yet the part-time legislature must tackle complicated finances when many lawmakers get less than a year of actual legislative experience over six to eight years in office.

Calling himself a progressive. Bond said he’s concerned about “the politics of individualism” as more people are concerned only about themselves and not the community’s general welfare.

“Arkansas has viewed itself as 49th and 50th. That’s not how it should be. Should we accept stagnant growth? That’s my challenge — to do better,” he said.