Leader Blues

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Don’t build that tunnel

If any politician was ever handed a win-win option, Governor Mike Beebe got it when the dons of the legislature asked him to turn loose $2.8 million so they could build an air-conditioned tunnel from the Capitol to new private offices that the lawmakers are going to prepare for themselves 100 feet to the west.

Saving that $2.8 million would be the right thing to do and also, if we gauge popular sentiment correctly, immensely popular.

That is exactly what Beebe chose to do. He told legislative leaders Monday to forget about the tunnel for the immediate future.

The legislature had appropriated money for the work but only the governor can sign off on releasing money for capital projects.

It should not diminish anyone’s appreciation for his decision that it happened to be a crowd pleaser, too. A politician’s finest moment may be when he does something that takes political courage and risks his own future — there are precious few examples of that anymore — but they also serve who do simple good works that the great public cheers.

The legislators’ plans to ensconce themselves in a little luxury on the rare days when they are in Little Rock seemed particularly ill-timed. Their argument was that in a budget of $6 billion or so, what is a trifling $2.8 million? In flush times, not so much.

The state budget for human services, highways, schools and public health is shrinking and people everywhere are in straits, but the legislature needs a chunk of the taxpayers’ tribute to keep their hair in place and their suits dry when they scurry from their new offices in the Big MAC building across the narrow driveway over to the north wing of the Capitol.

When House Speaker Robbie Wills announced plans for the tunnel this summer, the governor had a better idea. Carry an umbrella. A good one will fetch less than $5 at the local dry goods. All over the sprawling Capitol grounds, government workers go to and fro every day through sun and shadow, wind and rain but no tunnel or skywalk.

Lest we give Governor Beebe too much credit, we need to remind you that he will release some $6 million from that surplus that accumulated during the flush years to renovate a big part of the Big MAC office building. They are moving the state Library and the state History Commission with their large archives and research rooms out of Big MAC to make room for offices for the 100 members of the House. As soon as renovations in the old Dillard’s building in downtown Little Rock are finished, those agencies will be moved into the private space, where the rent we presume will be a trifle steeper.

The cost to the taxpayers of all of it? Who knows?

—Ernie Dumas