Leader Blues

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

EDITORIALS>>Donít waste our surplus

Fresh estimates that the surplus in the state treasury will soar to $850 million and maybe well past that by the end of the fiscal year ought to be unalloyed good news. It means that the state has the resources to fix long unmet capital needs like school buildings and equipment, medical facilities and prisons.

But the developing culture in the Arkansas legislature makes good fiscal news mere fresh reasons to worry. It means more money for lawmakers to waste on political projects. A larger surplus gives legislators greater latitude to claim sizable sums as their own, to spread around their legislative districts in ways that will collect political chips. One idea behind term limits was that they would liberate legislators from such grabbiness. Term limits clearly has had the opposite effect.

Last year, members of the state Senate and House of Representatives divided a large part of the General Improvement Fund ó the surplus ó among themselves for projects in their districts for which they would get credit: a 4-H center, a private museum, street lights. This winter, with the surplus reaching toward $1 billion, legislators are looking for much bigger allotments. Not one of them should get defeated in 2008.

It is the greatest legislative scandal of the new century, but it is expanding, not shrinking. A few senators and representatives cavil at the outrage, but they are a minority. In the Senate, a group led by Sen. Bob Johnson of Bigelow and calling themselves The Brotherhood is running the show. John Brummet, the political columnist for Stephens newspapers, counts their strength at 21 out of the 35 senators.

The new governor will have to confront that reality. Mike Beebe has delicately asserted that he would like to see the surplus spent on real state needs like schools, colleges and prisons and perhaps a rainy-day fund for the state or a modest giveback to taxpayers. The Brotherhood stands in the way, and Beebe may be reluctant to challenge them. It may in fact be unproductive to make enemies of the grabby members of the chamber that he once led. But we think he owes it to the taxpayers to insist that the state spend its money on rational and demonstrated public needs. Besides leading with the bully pulpit, he can veto one by one each of the hundreds of pork bills as they emerge and force the legislature to override. The public would be on his side and it would bring the grab to a halt.

In the end, it may take a broad lawsuit like the one that Mike Wilson, the former representative from Jacksonville, filed last year challenging local pork bills in his bailiwick. The Arkansas Constitution prohibits local and special legislation, but the provision has always been ignored because it is a little vague. Just what is a local bill? The courts do their best to dodge decisions on such thorny questions, particularly when the practice has become common.

People have many reasons to regret the late tenure of Sen. Nick Wilson of Pocahontas, but this may be the greatest. He led the charge in 1997 to take away the governorís prerogative of choosing the capital projects to fund from the General Improvement Fund and invest that power instead in the legislature.

Mike Huckabee was an easy target and Wilson succeeded. With that power in their grasp, Bob Johnson and other legislators took it to the next level. Why just pick the needy state projects that will be funded? Why not give the money to ourselves, in effect, by collecting proposals from friends and supporters back home about what fun projects they could undertake with a few hundred thousand dollars of taxpayersí money?

Itís time to put a stop to the grab before it gets institutionalized any further. Gov. Beebe, itís the first measure of your leadership.