by Max Brantley
New House Speaker Benny Petrus is full of surprises. His progressive outlook on taxation -- even if it did happen to reflect the Farm Bureau's long love affair with the sales tax on groceries -- was a hopeful sign.
Now we learn that the speaker has engaged as administrative assistant the outgoing House Speaker, Bill Stovall. By the end of Stovall's too-brief tenure in the House, he'd earned widespread admiration as a student of the budget, a pro at vote counting, a wily political operator and a fearless bulldog on matters of principle.
You may also remember that Stovall worked the other side of a heated contest for the election that Petrus won to be House speaker. So Petrus speaks unvarnished truth when he told me, "This wasn't a buddy deal. It's for the institution. I can't think of anyone else who has the knowledge of the budget and the institution that Bill Stovall has."
That election contest?
"We're both bigger than one race for speaker."
Spoken like a smart politician.
Past speakers have also had administrative assistants. The position is budgeted to pay $96,000 annually, though Stovall might not extend the job after the legislative session. Stovall had had other lobbying options, but takes a job in which he could have great public value.
Petrus and Stovall faced off on more than the speaker's election, or at least that was the general view. Stovall famously dug in and beat the Deltic Timber bill to wrest control of the Lake Maumelle watershed from the Central Arkansas Water Commission. Petrus drew attention here for providing his apartment for entertainment use by lobbyists working for Deltic.(Petrus protests that lobbyist Joe Bell was wearing his Oaklawn hat in that entertainment capacity, not Deltic's, and that he had never declared how he would vote on the Deltic legislation, which Stovall squashed in committee. Vote counters certainly counted Petrus among Deltic supporters, but as he notes in taking issue with my initial phrasing here, many vote counters also thought Will Bond would beat Petrus in the race for speaker.)
An amusing side note: We learned of this first from a senator who commented: "That is definitely a good thing for the House," he said, "but I'm not so sure how it bodes for us in the Senate. I'm sure, though, we're gonna get out-foxed."
Given the shape of things in the Senate, where The Brotherhood reigns, let us hope so.