Leader Blues

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

WED 3-29-6 EDITORIAL >> Choosing between kids and pork

Tomorrow is the deadline for legislative leaders to assure Gov. Huckabee that he runs no risk if he calls the General Assembly into session next week to rework public school funding for the current budget cycle. He wants assurances that both the Senate and House of Representatives will pass new school appropriations and funding formulas, or else he will not summon legislators to Little Rock.

This is a strange brand of leadership. Refuse to play the game until you know what the score will be. But Huckabee has a small, if too rigid, point. He need not waste the taxpayers’ money or his own political capital on a session if there is absolutely no chance of material progress toward complying with the state Supreme Court’s order to fund public schools at a level that promises to give every child an adequate education.

As of yesterday, Speaker Bill Stovall could reassure Huckabee that the House would deliver the necessary votes, but Senate leaders could not promise him a majority or even close to it. A few senators support the supplemental funding for this school year and the next devised by the interim Education Committee, others want even more money to close the gap between rich and poor schools and their teachers and to protect already poor schools that are losing students and state aid, and others are still mad that the Supreme Court ruled that they had not done their constitutional duty to fund education adequately. A few of those do not want to give education one more dime.

Prominent in the last category are Republican legislators, and Gov. Hucka-bee committed himself to try to convert his own flock to the cause of better education. We will learn tomorrow how much sway the governor has with his own party. Perhaps no more than President Bush now enjoys with congressional Repub-licans, but we hope the governor has preserved more capital with his party.

It ought to be an easy sell. The case that the legislature grossly underfunded the schools for the biennium was overwhelming. While the Supreme Court was closely divided on whether to hold the legislature’s 2005 work unconstitutional, no justice posited that it was sufficient. A minority simply believed that the judgment should be left with the legislature unless a new challenge was filed.

Moreover, tax collections for two years have been running far ahead of projections and ahead of budgeted spending for all the government. So unless the money is diverted to the schools, it will pile up in the treasury to furnish lawmakers with another trough of money for pork-barrel spending in 2007 and beyond. The General Improvement Fund is a sort of tax-financed re-election chest for lawmakers. That is the lagniappe that so outraged Mike Wilson of Jacksonville that he brought suit last year to void the appropriations, stopping just two of them, but it remains a strong incentive for legislators to vote against education. Gov. Huckabee should remind his lawmaking friends that the public interest dictates something else.

Meantime, he should not demand 100 percent assurance of passage of school legislation before calling the session. It is the nature of the legislative process to produce compromise, and that is what will happen if people of goodwill are brought together for good purpose.