As I mentioned yesterday, the Southern Good Faith Fund announced a proposal today to use any increase in the gas severance tax to pay for higher education for needy students. (Correction: part of the program targets low-income students. Another part is open to all high schools grads.) They dub the idea the Arkansas Promise, after the El Dorado Promise in which Murphy Oil is financing college scholarships for all El Dorado High School graduates.
Sheffield Nelson, who's leading a ballot initiative to raise the severance tax, told me yesterday that he'd discussed the idea, but wasn't willing to change his current proposal, which gives 80 percent of any increase to highways and roads and 20 percent to higher education. Gov. Mike Beebe, who's working privately with the gas industry and legislators to see if a compromise can be worked out short of the initiative drive, wants all the money to go to highways.
Between the push for highway money; the general legislative feeling that any severance tax devoted to colleges would produce an offsetting cut in general revenue support for colleges, and resistance to what might look to some like a "welfare" program, I'm afraid this meritorious idea won't go far. But it contributes greatly to the debate.
The study also advances my suspcion that the Fayetteville shale play -- if it contines and if gas prices hold up, as Nelson thinks they will -- that the income could be a great deal more than the $60 to $100 million a year that has been estimated at current production. Huge shale production is coming on-line. The Good Faith Fund estimates revenues over a decade averaging $250 to $500 million a year. If that kind of income could be produced, you'd certainly want it targeted to a productive purpose. There's nothing more productive than education.