Columns » Autumn Tolbert

Big spending

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Earlier this week, smack dab on the front page of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, was Susan Hutchinson, the first lady of Arkansas, showing off the recent $817,000 renovation of the Governor's Mansion. In an article by Jeannie Roberts, Hutchinson describes a list of improvements made to the mansion, including those that sounded urgent and those that sounded downright unnecessary. Making the grounds accessible, fixing damage from a rat infestation in an outbuilding, and replacing a slippery floor all seem like reasonable expenses. No one wants the house to fall into a state of disrepair. However, the costly renovations included a $7,000 conversion of a janitor's closet into a "powder room," the demolition of a built-in bookcase, the installation of a donated mantle and hearth in the library that cost the taxpayers nearly $36,000, and the removal and replacement of what Hutchinson referred to as "third-grade quality granite" countertops that did not match the beige in the room as part of the $71,000 kitchen renovation.

The money for the renovations comes from Arkansas tax dollars, specifically from real estate transfer taxes, that go to the Arkansas Natural and Cultural Resources Council to preserve state-owned historic sites and acquire land to conserve historic properties and promote recreation. The council then doles out this tax money as grants. On the whole, this is a worthy organization and a worthy cause that helps retain our important tourism and recreation dollars here in Arkansas. The grants have kept the state Capitol looking spiffy, preserved and digitized important state archives, improved state parks, and helped preserve Arkansas treasures such as the historic Dyess Colony. The list of worthy recipients of these grants goes on and on. I think the bathroom at the Arkansas Governor's Mansion is not one of them.

Before the Hutchinsons came along, a public commission controlled and made decisions on renovations and improvements to the Governor's Mansion. Governor Hutchinson supported legislation to end that public control and to give it to himself, and by extension, his wife. Prior reporting by Leslie Peacock in the Arkansas Times describes Susan Hutchinson's choices of hand-painted silk wallpaper, a $1,000 toilet and thousands of dollars in Christmas decorations.

This opulent spending brings to mind Arkansas State Treasurer Dennis Milligan's fancy, $400 personalized desk set that was part of his high-dollar shopping spree a couple of years ago courtesy of Arkansas taxpayers. Like Susan Hutchinson, he also went to town on the Christmas decorations. And here I was this whole time thinking Republicans were for less spending and smaller government.

Some of our politicians run for office solely out of a lust for power and glory, but it is more common that they, at least in the beginning, truly possess a servant's heart. But too often, after getting a taste of the trappings of the office or after they come to believe they are untouchable at election time, they stop caring about the people they represent and do whatever their hearts' desire, appearances be damned. I do not know if Governor Hutchinson has a servant's heart. He seems to talk the talk when necessary. But this expensive renovation and his request nearly a decade ago for a more than $70,000 payday from the people of Benton County for defending the county judge in one misdemeanor case tell me he isn't too proud to try to get his share, appearances be damned. I'm not sure if he and his wife are so confident in his re-election bid that they agreed to a high-profile tour to show off these renovations during early voting or they were clueless to how disgusting all of this looks to the struggling people of Arkansas. I don't know which is worse. Either way, I guess we can find comfort knowing the First Family of Arkansas no longer has to eat on low-quality granite countertops.

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