Leader Blues

Sunday, December 31, 2006

EDITORIALS>>Don't violate Constitution

It is an almost immutable rule that the final days of a longtime officeholder who is forced to vacate by the Constitution or the electorate are messy. It was that way with the last three presidents of the United States, and so it is with Mike Huckabee, who has another week and a half in the governor’s office before returning to plebian status.

Huckabee understandably is eager to embellish his legacy, so Thursday he dramatically made a “landmark announcement in the history of Arkansas,” which was that he was going to shift around a couple of million dollars of taxpayers’ money to bring about one of the best cancer research facilities “on the entire planet.”

Never mind that the little money he proposes to transfer to the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences as he leaves office is only a drop in the ocean of money that will be needed for the research center. As small as it is and as worthy as it might be, what he proposes is simply illegal. The state’s chief fiscal officer and adviser to the governor says so, but who needs him? The Constitution and the statutes plainly prohibit it.

There is a rudimentary constitutional prohibition that every freshman legislator learns the first week: Money appropriated for one purpose cannot be spent for quite another. But Huckabee said that he had directed that about $1.2 million in the state General Improvement Fund that was appropriated by the legislature in 2005 for projects at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock be taken away from them and given to UAMS as “seed money” for the research building, as Huckabee calls it, and $800,000 be used to endow obesity and diabetes research for the doctor who helped the governor lose his celebrated 110 pounds.

Richard Weiss, director of the Department of Finance and Administration and Huckabee’s top cabinet officer, said he did not see how the governor could legally transfer the funds unless the two campuses losing the money had some other spare unappropriated cash lying around that they could give to the governor. Mind you, Weiss is the man who will have to transfer the money on the governor’s order. He said Huckabee had not consulted him. The legislature’s fiscal authority said the same thing, adding, “Apparently he’s just doing it.”

Why would the governor issue an order without even consulting the man he has depended on for 10 years for fiscal guidance and who will have to carry out the order? Apparently, relations have been strained since the week before the general election when Weiss publicly revealed that his boss was lying about vetoing legislation that set up an attorney-ad-litem program for children that former state Sen. Nick Wilson and friends later used to siphon tax money for themselves. Hucka-bee maintained that he had been on to Wilson’s dirty tricks and tried to stop the program and that the legislature, including Mike Beebe, the Democratic gubernatorial candidate this year, overrode him.

No, Weiss said, Huckabee, upon his advice, had vetoed only a small mechanical section of a funding bill that would not have stopped the ad-litem program at all. It actually made no mention of the ad-litem program. Huckabee disputed his subordinate and said Weiss was covering up for Beebe, whom he was supporting for governor and Huckabee was opposing. The official records of Huckabee’s action show that Huckabee was wrong.

They will show that Huckabee is wrong and Weiss is right on the university appropriations, too.

The legislature and the new governor, the same Mike Beebe, will have to determine whether to fund the $70 million, $120 million, or whatever is deemed necessary if the state wants to carry out the cancer research center that was announced this summer. It is indeed a worthy idea and the state’s $850 million-plus surplus should be able to handle it. Even the governor’s little transfers could be achieved by the legislature and the new governor in three days when it convenes on Jan. 7. But, of course, either way Mike Huckabee might not get the credit that he so desperately wants.

For the announcement, Huckabee brought out the widow of the late Winthrop Paul Rockefeller and said he wanted to name the future research center for Rockefeller, who died of cancer. The Rockefeller family has generously supported Huckabee. Invoking the name of Win Paul Rockefeller, whose memory engenders such tenderness, might cause many of us to overlook the peculiarities of the Constitution. “If it will memorialize such a sweet man, let’s just forget the niceties of the law and get it done, okay?”

Let’s not. There’s still hundreds of millions of dollars and several years to be spent on this project and we shouldn’t begin by skirting the law. If it’s worth doing, it’s worth following the law. Do it by the book, in this case the Constitution of Arkansas.