Leader Blues

Friday, September 04, 2009

EDITORIAL >> Tax dollars at work!

Have you noticed that the state House of Representatives and its leadership have been getting some bad press? They signed off on stupendous salaries for some people from outside Arkansas to come run our little lottery, authorized a bloated force of people with merely hefty salaries to do the actual work, endorsed sole-bid contracts and generally bungled the lottery, which 43 other states had started over the past 40 years with relative ease. It turned out that the lottery law they unveiled and passed overnight right at the end of a long legislative session in the spring included some important stuff that nobody talked about at the time.

Then they agitated Governor Beebe and lots of other people last month by announcing plans to spend three million of the taxpayers’ dollars on a tunnel or skywalk to connect the Capitol with the House members’ new personal offices in the Big MAC building a few yards to the west so they wouldn’t get cold or wet in the trek. Get an umbrella, the governor said.

That is just lately.

Last week, the House, or at least its leaders, figured out a solution and acted swiftly and boldly. No, no, they didn’t decide to embrace the public interest with greater fidelity. The problem was much bigger than that.

The problem was that the House members were not getting their message out to the people and, of course, that means that they were not spending enough money crafting and distributing the message about what thrifty, ingenious and public-spirited people they were. Voters were left relying on nothing but news accounts of their doings.

So they fired the former newspaper reporter who had been in charge of public information for the House for years and set up a far more elaborate “communications” operation. They will hire someone to replace the public-information officer, who made $80,000 a year, and also retain Craig Douglass Communications of Little Rock at $60,000 a year plus expenses and a 15 percent commission for special-contract work to oversee things from outside. Douglass will develop a public-relations strategy and some fresh ideas about how to get the word out to people across the state about the good things the legislature and its individual members do in the few weeks every year that they are in session at Little Rock.

There will be absolutely no politics involved, you understand.

Craig Douglass runs an advertising and public-relations agency. Like three-fourths of the House members, he is a Democrat, but he and Speaker Robbie Wills say that is immaterial. He will promote Republican and Democratic ideas with equal fervor. When he is done, people will be mad at nobody in the legislature. Republicans, who yearn to run the House but don’t yet, were a little querulous. Wills did say at first that the new communications team would tout the ideas of the House leadership, although he later tried to say he hadn’t said it or meant it.

You may be familiar with some of Douglass’ work. He was the lobbyist and communications strategist for Deltic Timber Corp. when it was trying to pass a law written by Sen. Bob Johnson of Bigelow, the current head of the state Senate and prospective candidate for the U. S. Senate, to allow Deltic to build regal subdivisions along the shores of Lake Maumelle right above the intake for our principal water supply. He’s also been the public-relations adviser for the Pulaski County School District, but he seldom returned phone calls.

By the way, how did those tasks work out?

Craig Douglass Communications worked, voluntarily he said, for the successful lottery initiative in 2008 and with Wills on the lottery-enabling legislation. But when Douglass applied for the lucrative contract to do promotions and advertising for the lottery, he lost out to an ad combine that had even better connections with the Lottery Commission and director than he did.

Unlike other ad agencies, Douglass didn’t complain publicly about the loaded bid process that the lottery boys had contrived.

Sixty thousand dollars a year plus expenses and extras for a little consulting is meager consolation for the big prize that got away, but it is the best at the moment that the House — excuse us: make that the taxpayers — can do.

Admittedly, there are more scandalous wastes of taxpayers’ money than a couple hundred thousand dollars a year to promote politicians. But is it really the taxpayers’ job and is it in their interest to do that? Isn’t that why we have special interests? In the new political order, it’s their job to bankroll the politicians’ image making. They’re the beneficiaries, after all.