People are asking how this natural gas severance tax thing between Gov. Mike Beebe and gas man Sheffield Nelson is going to work out.
So I asked for a few minutes of Beebe's time. The governor used the occasion to send a message to college officials. Minutes later, Lu Hardin got the message loud and clear.
Here's the story:
Because of the new run on natural gas in Arkansas, and because our natural gas severance tax is low to the point of absurdity in comparison with surrounding states, Beebe has endorsed an unspecified increase. He wants the money to go to state highways, county roads and city streets. That's because our transportation infrastructure is substandard and our motor fuel taxes are stagnant, based as they are on gallonage, not price.
Beebe wants the natural gas industry to come to the table for a legislative solution on a severance tax increase in 2009, spurred by his leverage of threatening to lead an initiated act for the general election ballot in 2010. He says legislative solutions are better public policy than initiated acts.
Nelson, the former gas executive and former state higher education board member with close ties to his alma mater, the University of Central Arkansas, has come forth with his own different idea. It's not to bother with the legislature and its seemingly prohibitive three-fourths majority requirement. It's to propose an initiated act for the very next general election ballot, less than a year from now, raising our gas severance tax to Oklahoma's rate, which is 7 percent of gross price. It would spend most of the money for colleges and universities.
Beebe thinks he's done much for colleges and universities and can be counted on by college officials to keep doing much. But he doesn't want this new severance tax money to go anywhere but to roads. He seems to believe that, with his own talk of an initiated act looming for 2010, the gas industry can be persuaded to come along with him in the legislative session beginning in January 2009. He professes to believe a three-fourths vote is therefore attainable, though, admittedly, “an uphill battle.”
Beebe said that he and Nelson are talking amicably. He said Nelson's credibility on the issue is strong and that his heart is in the right place.
Then the governor said the only really new and interesting thing in our conversation. It was that he couldn't imagine college presidents disagreeing that he's been a good friend and supporter of higher education as governor and state senator before that, and could be trusted to remain so, and that he further couldn't imagine these college presidents standing in the way of vital new aid for troubled highways, roads and streets.
You don't need a doctor's degree to decode that message.
That made me think of Hardin, the UCA president. He's a Beebe pal and a Nelson pal who also is the most politically engaged and savvy of our college presidents. So I called him.
Hardin went into an extensive background explanation of how we came to this point and how much he admires Beebe and Nelson. He said he had every confidence higher education would be well taken care of in Beebe's “eight years,” adding, “We're just going to go ahead and cancel his re-election campaign.”
Then Hardin said he would defer to the governor. He said he appreciated Nelson's efforts and wouldn't mind if these parties reached some compromise. But, failing that, he wanted it known that, if Nelson persists on a course conflicting with the governor's, he would disassociate himself from those efforts.
Having sized matters up, Hardin opts not to be at cross-purposes with a governor who has a history of alliance with higher education and whose second term he happily concedes.
By the way: Nelson couldn't be reached before this column deadline.
Also by the way: Beebe said he favors “Red Wolves” among the dozen listed options for renaming the Indians at his own beloved alma mater, Arkansas State University.