In its final days, the Arkansas legislature did more to help education than most people expected. It raised teachers' salaries, consolidated 59 of the state's smallest school districts, provided $40 million for pre-kindergarten classes for poor children, ordered advanced courses to be taught in all schools by 2008, started a program to repair dilapidated buildings and required testing and tracking each student year-to-year. .
What's disappointing is that the legislators didn't have the spunk to make the rich instead of the poor pay for better schools. Instead, it raised the sales tax to produce $364 million and timidly increased the corporate franchise tax for $6 million a year.
To meet the Supreme Court orders to improve the adequacy and equity of our schools, bills were introduced to raise the corporate income tax, the property tax, the severance tax on oil and natural gas sold out of the state, etc., but none passed. It's interesting that the corporate income tax in 1972 (the last time it was raised) accounted for 31 percent of the state's income, but now it amounts to only 14 percent, thanks to exemptions the state has allowed.
But the corporate lobbyists and organizations like the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce fought against a higher income tax, so the legislators decided to make more money for schools by raising the most regressive tax there is - the sales tax. They raised it to 6 cents for every $1 we spend.
So Arkansans will be paying more taxes for what they buy than the people who live in Oklahoma, Missouri and Louisiana and most other states. The State and Local Government Source Book shows that in 2002 Arkansas had the ninth highest sales tax of the 50 states but that its corporate income tax was 24th and the property tax ranked 36th.
One amazing unexpected law, introduced by Rep. Shane Broadway, provides that if state income is tight, the money for schools will be paid before anything else. It's said that there is no similar law in any other state.
The legislators should have consolidated more little schools, thereby saving more money, attracting better teachers and improving curriculum. They had an opportunity to improve Arkansas's subservient tax system but failed. And by raising the state sales tax they have made it difficult, maybe impossible, for cities to improve by passing or increasing city sales taxes.
But the legislators had a difficult job - maybe the most difficult one legislators have faced in state history. And I believe they did enough to improve education in Arkansas and to satisfy the two special masters and the Supreme Court.
Garrison Keillor is one of our best writers and entertainers. I think it's because he knows Americans so well and so appreciates the comedy in life. I believe that's why more than 6,000 people filled up Hot Springs' Summit Arena last week to see and hear him broadcast his weekly radio program, "A Prairie Home Companion."
He started the show by singing the Star Spangled Banner and Elvis Presley's "I Can't Help Falling in Love with You," followed it near intermission with "Dixie," and then closed the two-hour show with his regular, mythical Lake Wobegon with a story about an Arkansas faith-healer coming to Wisconsin, Keillor's home, and planting Arkansas daffodils so that when the snow melts the people have something pretty to look at.
This show was fairly typical of "A Prairie Home Companion," the weekly radio show on Public Radio International that he has produced since 1974 to the delight of millions of listeners. Keillor, who is 61, is supported by his Shoe Band, actors, sound effects people and guest country singers and musicians. He often presents a local musician, who in Hot Springs was Charlotte Crosmer, a 12-year-old star fiddle player from Conway.
Keillor writes and does a regular sketch as a private detective named Guy Noire, who this time had been called to Hot Springs to do something about the large number of Wisconsin winter tourists coming to Hot Springs who arrived so cold that they were lowering the temperature of the city's famed hot mineral water. While there, Detective Noire found Bill Clinton in one of the bath houses, and Clinton proceeded to give him the long history of the town.
"We miss hearing you talk, Mr. President," Noire said. "You talk in paragraphs. We remember when the budget was in surplus and the rest of the world liked us."
Clinton replied: "I like to come here. Being in hot water always calms me down. I would have stayed cooler if I hadn't read the newspapers like President Bush. I wish I had thought of that. Like the song says, 'Freedom is just another word for not knowing what's going on.'"
Keillor was swamped with fans when the show was over, according to Bill Whitworth of Little Rock, who took him to dinner. Whitworth, who had been Keillor's editor at both the New Yorker and Atlantic Monthly, said he was so friendly that he stayed in the arena with the fans for an hour, and then when they entered the restaurant, he was swamped again.
Whitworth, now retired in Little Rock, told me that some people compare Keillor to Mark Twain. If you want to check this out, you might want to tune in Friday at KUAR, which is re-running his Hot Springs show at 8 p.m.