Leader Blues

Friday, August 14, 2009

EDITORIAL >> You tell ’em, Governor

Remember when the proponents of term limits argued that, unlike the old guys they would replace, lawmakers who were constitutionally limited to only six or eight years in office would be public spirited and uninterested in self-aggrandizement? How did that work out?

The short-timers in no time were raising their salaries and perks, fattening their government retirements and setting aside large sums of tax money every year for each of them to parcel out for mostly private projects in their districts to win favor with political interests. And they were dead set against legislating any ethical restraints on taking gifts and emoluments from private pleaders.

Now it turns out that they have appropriated millions of dollars to convert a large part of the state office building 75 yards west of the Capitol into offices for legislators. Several state agencies, including the state History Commission and the state archives, will be moved into the old Dillard’s Inc. headquarters in downtown Little Rock to make way for private offices and other space for members of the legislature, principally the House of Representatives.

That has always seemed like a low priority for scarce public funds, but you may have some sympathy for representatives because their counterparts on the east side of the Capitol, the 35 state senators, had offices built for themselves a couple of decades ago. State agencies were moved out of the fourth floor of the Capitol into rental space in commercial buildings to make room for the senators. A representative is the constitutional equal of a senator, although a senator serves a term of four years instead of two and term limits allows him a total of eight years while representatives can stay for only six. A representative may be justified in thinking that if the taxpayers provide an office for the senator from his district they should provide equal quarters for him.

But that wasn’t enough. The legislators plan to build a tunnel or a sky bridge connecting the Multi-Agency Complex, the so-called Big Mac building that will house their private offices, with the Capitol, where they work on the occasions when they are in town for public business. The legislature plans to spend $3 million or so on the tunnel or sky bridge.

Three million dollars is not a lot of money in a state budget of $6 billion, but are there greater needs? Say, the penitentiary, which can’t hold the people convicted of felonies and sentenced to confinement. Or crumbling public schools.

In the 30-odd years since Big MAC was built and for 50 years before that in the old Game and Fish and Employment Security buildings that it replaced, people scurried back and forth unprotected from the harsh Arkansas weather. But, you see, legislators are different. One House leader said lawmakers and their staffs would be toting papers and other stuff back and forth the 75 yards between the Capitol and the Big Mac and they would get wet or, in the brutal Arkansas winter, chilled.

Sometimes, we are pleasantly shocked by the governor, who came from the old legislative guard. He was a senior senator with power when term limits were invoked in 1998 and the old bulls had to retire.

Thursday, Gov. Beebe said building a fancy tunnel or sky bridge over to the office building was a terrible idea. He is known for his good relations with lawmakers, which pay off by their voting for whatever he wants.

“No,” he said quaintly, falling into bumpkin speech. “We ain’t got money for that.”

He went (so reasonably) on: “I can’t see how that’s even feasible. What do you got? A 300-foot walk? A 400-foot walk, something like that, to walk from the Capitol to the Big MAC building? We’ll get them some umbrellas if there is bad weather.”
He said he would even use an umbrella himself when he walked over to Big Mac in the rain or sleet. Imagine that! A governor holding an umbrella. The tunnel or sky bridge would be right outside his office. Gov. Mike Huckabee used to talk about constructing a private escape hatch from his second-floor suite in the event of terrorists, an unruly public or rude reporters.

It is not clear that the governor can stop the project if the legislators insist on it. The legislature in recent years has claimed executive power over part of the general improvement funds it appropriates every two years. But it would be a test of his bully authority if he just flatly said he wouldn’t countenance the spending.

Three million dollars doesn’t go far in a state with stupendous needs, but it’s the principle of the thing. We have an idea that taxpayers in these hard times appreciate the gesture.