Leader Blues

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

EDITORIAL>> Pillsbury dough boy sells out again

When friendly economic interests or pastoral connections do not interfere, Gov. Mike Huckabee can be a whale of a leader.

Free of the beseeching of commercial benefactors, he will insist on the consolidation of tiny inefficient school administrations, demand absolute adherence to school standards like music and art classes, fight his party’s conservatives to gain government-paid health services for hundreds of thousands of needy children and educational benefits for the children of undocumented aliens and even, this last week, put a thoughtful and energetic man in charge of public health programs.

But Huckabee’s sturdy backbone turns to jelly any time political benefactors evince an interest in public policy.

The governor’s weakness was plainly in evidence again over the weekend when he told his appointees on the state Board of Education (all are his men and women) that he did not want them to require Arkansas’ 254 school districts to meet a new set of health and fitness standards. The board will do his bidding.

Oh, he likes the standards very much, Huckabee said, but when it comes to these particular rules local school boards and administrators should decide for themselves whether they want to do more to save their children from poor health and early death.
Huckabee will insist, as he has maintained on other such occasions, that his libertarian instincts guide him. He is against nosy, intrusive government.

That is why he stopped his own Board of Health from cracking down on smoking in public places, why he has on other occasions guided his government away from forcing high-fat snack foods and soft drinks out of the schools and why, very early in his political career, he sided with the bottling industry in fighting a tax on soft drinks to pay for nursing-home care and medical services for poor children.

It is just a coincidence, we are supposed to believe, that the unifying factor in all of those fights was that the stakeholding commercial interests were reliable Huckabee financial supporters.

That the governor would go so far out of the way to stop the Board of Education from following the clear purpose of a law that he signed seems particularly perverse and self-defeating. Huckabee is criss-crossing the country promoting his new diet book and fitness crusade.

Junk food can ruin your life and ultimately kill you, he says. The crusade is aimed at children, and with good reason. American youngsters on average have become about the fattest and least healthy in the developed world, and Arkansas kids are about the unhealthiest in the land. Obesity is epidemic.

Act 1220 of 2003 addressed it and Gov. Huckabee proudly signed the legislation. The law is loaded with imperatives. It created a child-health advisory committee comprising health professionals, which was directed to prepare diet and exercise standards for the state Board of Education, which in turn was to use the committee’s recommendations to formulate new standards for Arkansas schools.

The act directed the committee to look at the impact of “competitive” snack foods — the commercial vending-machine foods and drinks that have become pervasive in Arkansas schools. The vending foods have become addictive not only to kids but to school administrators, who count on a cut from the machines to pay for school programs.

Huckabee began to cavil at the law’s purposes even before the advisory committee perfected its recommendations. He wasn’t so sure that the state should try to limit the sugary and fatty foods that children get from the machines. Contrary to his own experience and preaching, Huckabee found that there was no hard evidence of the impact of the vending machines on kids’ health.

Now that the advisory committee has given its findings to the Board of Education, Huckabee does not want the state to mandate the programs. Here’s a shocker: He said the soft-drink industry joined him in not wanting the state to require school administrators to follow the rules.

Among the professionals’ proposals: require at least half the commercial beverage sales in schools to be 100 percent fruit juice, low-fat or fat-free milk and water; ban foods with more than 23 fat grams per serving; limit the size of fat-food packages; ban vending-machine snacks from elementary schools and ban them from other schools until 30 minutes after the last lunch is served.

State Rep. Jay Bradford of White Hall, who has often been a key Huckabee ally in the legislature, was too generous when he was told of the governor’s stance on the fruits of his legislation.

“That's leadership, isn’t it?” Bradford said. “Somehow, I’m not surprised. The governor has always talked a good game, but sometimes when it comes to being proactive, he doesn’t always get there. He has wasted a great opportunity to improve the health of Arkansans who put him in the governor’s office.”

We thought the governor’s lame-duck status would free him of the leg-irons of private emoluments and campaign gifts. Apparently, we erred, or else he has other ambitions.