Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 16, 2007

EDITORIALS>>Say it ain't so, Benny

Early observation of the new speaker of the Arkansas House of Representatives, Rep. Benny Petrus of Stuttgart, records an unusual pattern. He matches each good deed with a foul one.

So it was that when the legislature convened last week, Joseph K. “Jodie” Mahony II of El Dorado, the legislative veteran of nearly four decades now retired by term limits and author of much of the school-reform legislation during his time, was on hand to advise lawmakers on education budgeting and the Supreme Court. A legislature shorn by term limits of virtually all institutional memory needs all the help it can get, and Speaker Petrus saw to it by hiring Mahony. Thanks, Benny.

But Petrus revealed his committee appointments, and there chairing the House Education Committee was Rep. Mike Kenney of Siloam Springs, the most reflexive foe of public education in the legislature now that Sen. Jim Holt is gone. (Holt once beat Kenney for a legislative seat. They live nearby and share proximate philosophies, i.e. extreme right-wing.) Kenney’s main campaign promise in 2004 was that school ad-valorem taxes needed to be slashed. He is a foe of increased school funding by the state and a friend of vouchers and other anti-public school remedies.

Here’s a clue to his appointment as education chair. He is supported by the Walton interests (at least $4,000 in his last easy campaign), whose big education interest this year is a nutty and disproven scheme to tie every teacher’s pay to a standardized student test. The Walton interests support Petrus.

But we may be unfair to the speaker. He may have been merely fulfilling a promise to House Republicans last year that he would reward them with key committee leadership positions in exchange for their votes in the speaker’s contest with Rep. Will Bond of Jacksonville, an-other Democrat. They and Petrus delivered bountifully.

Let him honor his political deals, but chairman of education? It is arguably the most vital committee in the legislature, this the most critical moment, and Mike Kenney seemingly the worst choice. Legislative production and effectiveness were not the measures. Kenney has passed but one bill in four years, except for the illegal local appropriations from the General Improvement Fund that are allotted to all legislators.

Maybe there is method to the speaker’s madness. An Arkansas committee chairman ordinarily does not exercise the ironfisted control of the agenda that, say, a congressional chairman does. Unless he is shrewd and wise like a Nick Wilson, he may be no more than a vote on a 20-member committee. Those adjectives do not seem to describe Mike Kenney. For the sake of 450,000 children, let’s hope they do not.