Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

EDITORIAL>>Biggest challenge

The biggest challenge facing Mike Beebe when he becomes governor of Arkansas is figuring out what to do with the state’s growing surplus. Governors seldom get a second chance at fixing Arkansas’ problems, but when Beebe takes office in January, he could repair the state’s public schools after having tried to do just that while serving in the Senate for two decades.

As a leading legislator, Beebe arranged for more funding for schools, but somehow the job was never done, despite prodding from state courts. The state Supreme Court has issued an ultimatum that the legislature cannot ignore: The state must rebuild its crumbling public schools or the courts will step in and do the job.

Either way, that task will cost hundreds of millions of dollars, and Beebe and the legislature had better start making plans soon and figure out how much money to give our schools. The challenge shouldn’t be that difficult to tackle: Arkansas has an $800 million surplus, which would go a long way toward fixing the problem. Sounds simple, doesn’t it? Well, not quite. If Beebe and his fellow legislators could not satisfy the court’s mandates going back to the 1980s, why should they succeed now?

Sure, they will have more money to work with, but it will be hard to resist the temptation to cut corners and shortchange schools for other projects. Should they fail again, the courts will take over the schools and supervise their operation. We’ve seen that happen in Pulaski County, and that’s a disaster you wouldn’t wish on the rest of the state.

A survey of area legislators in today’s Leader suggests they’re eager to work with Beebe on dividing the surplus, some of which will likely pay for their favorite projects back home, while some of the surplus will disappear when the sales tax on groceries is phased out. That should take care of the surplus, especially after legislators take a cut for their own pet projects, leaving very little for roads and other improvements.

But the biggest chunk will almost certainly go toward public education since the state Supreme Court ordered the state to stop dragging its feet and start improving public school facilities and offer students a better education immediately. Morril Harriman, Beebe’s new chief of staff, has played this game for decades as the two were longtime side kicks in the Senate. They tried to solve the school issue but failed. Here’s hoping they do better the second go-round.

Mike Beebe’s legacy will depend on how well he tackles the crisis in our schools. For our kids’ sakes, the new governor must do better than his predecessor.