Leader Blues

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

TOP STORY >>Lawmakers say they're ready to work with Beebe

By JOHN HOFHEIMER
Leader staff writer

Area legislators—all of whom were reelected without opposition Nov. 7—agree that Mike Beebe will be more of a hands-on governor than Gov. Mike Huckabee has been—and “hands-on” is the term they use nearly to a person.

All area representatives except Susan Schulte, R-Cabot, are Democrats, but they say the big difference when the General Assembly convenes in January won’t be that of working with a Democratic governor instead of a Republican, but rather attributable to Huckabee and Beebe’s contrasting styles of governance.

As a former state senator, they expect Attorney Gen. Beebe to roam the halls, stick his head into committee meetings and backslap and cajole legislators, massaging the process much in the style of former Gov. Bill Clinton. They described Huckabee as sticking pretty close to his office, keeping his distance from legislators. “There were times we didn’t get a tremendous lot of guidance on technical budget issues and technical policy matters,” says state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville. “I suspect Gov. Beebe will be more involved on a daily basis on budget and policy issues, more like Clinton than Huckabee.”

“Huckabee didn’t reach out to Democrats as a whole for ideas and feedback,” said state Rep. Jeff Wood, D-Sherwood. “He didn’t seek us out. Beebe’s going to be much different. He served in the legislature and knows how things work.” He said Beebe knows that by attending committee meetings he can better assure the approval of his agenda. “It’s real easy to vote against someone when it’s not eye-to-eye,” Wood said. Most say the top issues when the General Assembly reconvenes in January will be how to phase out the tax on groceries and what to do with the current $800 million state surplus.

Each has their own ideas on the big issues and issues that are important to them and their constituents. State Rep. Sandra Prater, D-Jacksonville, has advocated for healthcare-related issues since coming to the house and this year she’s promoting establishment of a traumatic brain injury commission to help tap in to any available money to help victims.

“I want to makes sure these families (and victims) have the resources to be as productive as possible,” Prater said. She also wants a centralized drug-testing registry for truck drivers to keep the highways safer and enhanced penalties for drugs or weapons at school bus stops. She said she wants additional money for biodiesel and bio fuel production and wants the state to spend money recruiting new industry.

“The federal highway bill will (provide) less money that before,” she said, suggesting that some of the surplus might be used for highway projects as well as for school facilities. Schulte, the Cabot Republican, says she’d like the state to help promote more biofuel production. “I hope it will help Arkansas farmers and reduce dependence on foreign oil.” As for the surplus, “It would be ice if some or all of it would go back as a tax rebate, but I don’t know what would be left if the grocery tax is repealed.”

Wood, a lawyer and Arkansas National Guardsman who helped pass legislation helpful to members of the military last session, says he’d like to revisit the state income-tax exemption for members of the military. Last session, the exemption was increased from $6,000 to $9,000 for enlisted mean and women. This year he’d like to include officers in that exemption.
Mark Pate, D-Bald Knob, wants to find more funding for the waiver program that would allow care outside of an institution for developmentally disable persons.

As for the $800 million surplus, Pate said, he wasn’t sure there was a surplus. “If we have a need, we don’t have a surplus,” he said, then mentioned several areas that could benefit from an infusion of one-time money. Those included education, school facilities, prisons and primary and secondary highways. “The counties and municipalities need more money for growth and infrastructure,” he said.

“I’m anxious to see, when we remove the food tax, how you’re going to replace that,” said state Rep. Lenville Evans, D-Lonoke. “I don’t want to take something off and then raise taxes down the line to replace it.” Evans said he was interested in Beebe’s economic development package and promoting the biofuel industry. He said the legislature was under court order to put more money into improving school facilities throughout the state.

State Sen. Bobby Glover, who is a long-time friend of Beebe’s, said he hopes to be a major sponsor of parts of the governor-elect’s agenda. “I’ve been for (eliminating) the grocery tax for years and sponsored a number of bills,” said Glover. “I hope to be one of the main sponsors.” He said the 6 percent tax should be phased out over four years, perhaps reduced by 1.5 percent each time.

“We can’t take a $200 million hit in one year’s time,” he said. Glover favors Beebe’s plan to provide tax relief for economic development, perhaps by deleting taxes on utilities. That would cut into state revenues by perhaps $50 million a year, he said. Glover also wants to help provide affordable health care for uninsured Arkansas. “It’s a hardship on them and secondly, a hardship on hospitals, particularly the emergency rooms around the state,” Glover added.

Like Beebe, Glover said he’d like to see pre kindergarten expanded and more scholarship money for those wanting to attend college. He also wants more money for the Department of Human Services because the federal government cut out a lot. He’d like to put more money in the prison system, higher education and school facilities. He wants to make sure legislators get “their fair share for general improvement funds.” Lonoke County already has asked for $300,000 toward enlarging the jail and finishing a county building to help with overcrowding in the courthouse.

Locally, Bond wants the legislature to help bring the school desegregation case to a close and help bring Jacksonville its own school district. Among the legislation being prepared are bills that assure the continued existence of the Pulaski County special School District if it pursues and cooperates in attaining unitary school status, he said. Overall, “The big issues are largely budgetary,” said Bond, “How to repeal the sales tax on food, whether or not to give manufactures credits or sales tax rebates on energy consumption at $50-60 million cost.”

Other things he’s interested in is possibly increasing the homestead exemption. “Issues in education will have to do with money,” he said. “How much increase will prekindergarten and K-12 get, plus money (for school) facilities. Bond said school facilities would be a good way to spend part of the $800 million surplus, since its one-time money. “If there’s one thing the (national) election showed us, folks want government to concentrate not so much on the things that divide us as on making government efficient and making good policy decisions that make a good impact on people’s lives.”

Bond said he’s interested in long-term Medicare issues—to see if we can find a way to help our seniors live out their lives in the least restrictive environment, protecting their assets.” State Sen. John Paul Capps is excited to have an active, “plugged-in” governor, particularly one he has worked so closely with in the past. “I know what his vision is and how he operates and I always thought he should run for governor,” Capps said.

For 20 years, Capps served as state representative for a district completely in Beebe’s senatorial district. They made it to all the same meetings, presentations and catfish dinners that are the staple of a politician. “We worked together on almost everything,” Capps said. “It was a close relationship.”

“I’m always big on tax reform,” Capps said. “We have an unfair tax system. We can nibble around the edges and have more equality, but…we have an antiquated constitution” that makes it difficult to enact new taxes like severance taxes on raw materials. A few lawmakers, representing special interests, can block such changes. Capps, who sits on the Highway Revenue Task Force, said his group was preparing some proposals for the new session.