Leader Blues

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

EDITORIALS>>What we need: more lobbyists

Every taxpayer was excited to learn last week that Arkansas had landed exactly what it needed most, another highly paid lobbyist.

And they will get to pay his salary, opening at $150,000 a year, and the expenses of his office, maybe another $100,000.
Oh, the presidents and chancellors of the state-supported universities will insist that the expense of the new Arkansas Association of Public Universities and its executive director will not come from the tax funds appropriated by the state to operate the institutions but from other sources.

Institutions keep separate funds precisely for such accounting ruses, but it all comes from the same pot. Tim Wooldridge of Paragould, a state senator until he ran for lieutenant governor last year and lost, got the job. He needed work. Wooldridge’s main function will be to lobby lawmakers and the governor on behalf of the public colleges and universities. That means get them bigger appropriations.

Wooldridge knows his way around the legislature for sure — he was part of the ruling clique in the Senate, the infamous Brotherhood — but his greatest risk will be getting trampled by all the other lobbyists for higher education.

Every school now has its own full-time lobbying team, usually vice presidents for governmental affairs or executive assistants to the chancellor, and the chancellors themselves hang out at the Capitol during legislative sessions. Altogether, they form one of the most formidable lobbying phalanxes in the state.

Have they been effective? Not to hear the university presidents tell it. They need more buildings as well as greater operating budgets.

In the Arkansas context — just about every public service in this poor state is underfunded — the universities have done quite well.

In 10 years, the legislature put a billion dollars into campus construction, and private donors ponied up another $300 million or so and had their names affixed to buildings. The University of Arkansas Medical Sciences Campus is perpetually sealed off owing to construction cranes.

And, yes, the voters last fall went along with another legislative proposition: a $250 million bond issue for capital improvements on the campuses that will be amortized by your sales and income taxes. The schools’ operating budgets went up 10 percent for the fiscal year that started this month.

Two universities — Arkansas Tech at Russellville and Arkansas State at Jonesboro — did not join the lobbying consortium. Les Wyatt, the president of Arkansas State, explained that Wooldridge would simply be duplicating what his school and the others already did. Tech’s president said the school could better spend its money on the campus.

They lend some credence to the idea that wisdom and judgment prevail at the institutions of higher learning. Too bad they represent only 15 percent.