Leader Blues

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

TOP STORY > >Legislator sees end for school lawsuits

Leader senior staff writer

“There’s no turning back from (efforts to end Pulaski County’s expensive) desegregation agreement now,” House Speaker-elect Robbie Wills, D-Conway, said Tuesday. Wills, Senate President Bob Johnson, D-Bigelow, and Gov. Mike Beebe visited with reporters and editors at the Arkansas Press Association offices in Little Rock.

At the meeting sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists, the Arkansas Associated Press Managing Editors and the APA, neither Wills nor Johnson said they foresaw continuation of the major effort shepherded by state Rep. Will Bond, D-Jacksonville, over the last six years, but Wills said he thought the path to end the desegregation litigation was set.
Mark Perry, who succeeds the term-limited Bond, has said those school issues are a top priority for him.

Declaring Pulaski County Special School District, North Little Rock School District and Little Rock School District all unitary—desegregated — would phase out the approximately $60 million a year the districts split in supplemental state appropriations and would clear the way for the stand-alone Jacksonville-North Pulaski County School District long sought by many area residents.

Mostly though, the two lawmakers and the governor identified setting up the state lottery and determining how its proceeds would be channeled into scholarships as the largest task facing lawmakers when the 87th General Assembly convenes on Monday.

An interim committee has worked on drafting legislation, Wills and Johnson said. Because 41 states already have lotteries, Arkansas is in the favorable position of being able to evaluate what works and what doesn’t work. The two men and the governor favor an independent commission to run the lottery with some degree of flexibility and they agree that the scholarship money should follow the student to a school rather than being simply given to the school.

They said not every student is destined to go to a four-year college, but that scholarships would be available to those going to vo-tech schools and other post secondary institutions.

Citing the need for non-college trained workers, Johnson noted that anyone needing a lawyer for a lawsuit could get five good offers in a day, but anyone calling a plumber or an electrician will get told, “I’ll put you on the list.”

“In my 14 years here, some of the issues we’ve dealt with including energy deregulation, insurance reform, the cyber college… all put together, they pale in comparison to the issues we confront this year, mainly the lottery and the structuring of the scholarships,” Johnson said. “The work that we do will out live any of us as long as we do it right.”

Other high priorities identified included funding and setting up a statewide trauma system with level one centers located at Arkansas Children’s Hospital in Little Rock, at a second, undesignated Little Rock hospital and also at a Memphis hospital.

The entire trauma system, which Beebe said was a major need, could eventually cost $68 million a year to fund, with the proceeds most likely coming from an additional cigarette tax of at least 50 cents a pack.

Beebe wouldn’t back away from his intent to see the remaining 2 7/8 cent grocery tax reduced by another penny this year and said he had prepared a budget with that in mind.

Both Johnson and Wills said they favored the penny reduction in the grocery tax, but Wills said he’d rather vote on that issue at the end of the session when lawmakers would have a little better idea about state tax revenues and expenses.

Beebe said that despite rough economic times, plant closings and layoffs, Arkansas still had a net gain in jobs this year.

He attributed that in part to the $50 million quick-acting closing fund that he as governor can dip into to help attract new industry such as the Caterpillar road grader satellite that will bring 160 jobs to Little Rock. The governor made the Caterpillar announcement Monday.

Johnson said that one of his main regrets as a lawmaker was voting for the three-strikes and you’re out law in his freshman year.

Putting a 25-year-old drug addict in prison for the rest of his life is not a good idea, he said. “We could send them to private school for what it costs to keep them in prison,” he noted.

Beebe also said he was against privatizing Arkansas prisons.

“We tried that and it doesn’t work,” he said.

“Nationally we have to stabilize the message on alternative energy,” Beebe said.

Beebe said that the nation fell asleep at the wheel after the last energy crises. He added that ethanol made from corn is not a good idea because it has driven up food prices.

Cellulose-based ethanol, however, can be made from switch grass, rice stalks, tree tops and any number of other sources, he said.

While the governor refused a moratorium on the SWEPCO coal-fired electric plant near Texarkana, he said, “I don’t think we need any more coal-fired plants.”