by Max Brantley
Bill Simmons, political editor of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, in today's paper dug into the accounting morass that is the question of how many state employees are provided cars and how many of them use them for other than official purposes.
It was an exhaustive effort to nail down a slippery situation.
Here's what I saw as the bottom line: AT LEAST 400 employees have vehicles they use for personal purposes, as measured by the fact that they pay federal income taxes on the perk.
That means AT LEAST 400 employees are likely getting personal car use at a rate below actual cost. AT LEAST those 400 are squarely in the sights of the taxpayer lawsuit that claims that ANY personal use of state property is illegal. (Stray question: Does the state judicial department provide any cars to its employees? Might this be a factor in the state Supreme Court's eventual deliberations in this case?)
I emphasize AT LEAST because I"m reasonably confident there are other state employees who are provided state cars who use them for personal commutes who are not accounted for on the list that DFA compiled. The precise number can't be known without an agency-by-agency accounting. It might be a good exercise: A full accounting, from every agency with state-equipped employees, of which employees, by name, have cars and the justification for allowing personal use in each case. It might be time to increase the required reimbursement rate, too, for personal miles driven in state cars from 15 cents.
PS — I don't see this as a partisan issue. The Republican Party does. It would be more credible had it been indignant in the Huckabee era. Not that Huckabee was a chief culprit (though he and the family loved state planes and cars; ever see the big Excursion Janet insisted on for her manservant chauffeurs?)
The car situation has metastasized over time. It's a byproduct of long custom, some petty abuses and, as Simmons' article illustrated, the ease of masking such things in a huge government with many independent parts. On balance, the abuses may not even be so bad as letter-to-the-editor writers seem to believe. A full accounting and end of any abuses that do exist are the solution.
PS — I'd like to see this report in computerized form so that it could be posted on the web and comments about omissions and accuracy could be made safely by other public employees.
Which reminds me: When will all other relevant public data be easily accessible on-line? line-item budget. individual salaries. expense reimbursements. rental fees. vendors. and more.