Columns » Warwick Sabin

Doing the limbo while Rome burns

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“Imagine cool breezes, sandy beaches, lush foliage and all things tropical, as we gather to enjoy a ‘Luau,’ Arkansas style. Shake out your hula skirt and get ready to ‘limbo down’ to beautiful Winrock Farms on Petit Jean Mountain.” So begins the invitation to the Employee Appreciation Day organized by the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission — at taxpayers’ expense. Attendance is not required, but why would any state worker want to miss this event? After all, the invitation promises “Chef Adam Hanry will once again tickle your taste buds with a feast fit for a king,” including “Grilled chicken with Teriyaki Glaze” and “Pit Roasted pork sandwich with Konan BQ sauce on Kings Hawaiian buns.” Nancy Ledbetter, the commission’s communications director, said that the day will include work-related activities, including “team-building” exercises and employee recognition. But the invitation says only “You are invited to participate in exciting outdoor activities, which include, a shady horseshoe pit, and a great lake for fishing and canoeing (all equipment will be provided). Music will also be provided so plan to join in the limbo competition and many other special events.” I would tell you more, but the invitation encourages recipients to “Check Intranet for activities and events,” and I don’t have access to the commission’s state-funded internal computer network. Ledbetter says the commission is spending $9,323.75 for the food and facility rental for the five-hour event. However, don’t forget the commission is paying all of its employees’ salaries for a day of recreation. The commission employs 617 people (545 full-time and 72 part-time). According to Ledbetter, close to 150 employees work at the commission’s Little Rock headquarters, and the rest are spread out around the state. There are at least two commission workers in each of the state’s 75 counties, and at least one employee in each county drives an official vehicle and uses a state credit card to pay for fuel. With the average price of regular-grade gasoline in Arkansas hovering around $2.10 a gallon (source: the American Automobile Association’s Daily Fuel Gauge Report), the transportation costs for the event could be considerable. Most round trips will be at least 100 miles. Ledbetter says that the commission is encouraging everyone to car pool, but with so many people in different locations, that doesn’t sound feasible. The commission has an overall budget of $68 million, so what’s wrong with spending over $10,000 on an employee appreciation day? It mainly has to do with appearances. The state is being sued by school districts that claim the legislature did not adequately fund public education. The Bush administration is proposing cuts to Medicare when Arkansas is struggling to provide minimal health care for its citizens. All of our higher education institutions are raising tuition, our highways need improvement, and other basic services are minimally funded. Meanwhile the Game and Fish Commission throws a lavish party (with food fit for a king!) for its employees at taxpayer expense. One can’t help but think of the story of Marie Antoinette, the wife of the French King Louis XVI. When told that peasants didn’t have enough bread, she supposedly said, “Let them eat cake.” The rumored remark helped inspire the French revolution, which overthrew the monarchy. “Let them eat roasted pork sandwich” doesn’t have the same ring, but the insensitive waste in one of Governor Huckabee’s pet agencies should provoke outrage among Arkansas citizens and other areas of state government that fell victim to the budget ax. Huckabee appoints his top supporters to the Game and Fish Commission board. The commission has named two nature centers in honor of Huckabee and his wife, Janet. There is a sense that the commission can take more liberties than other state outfits. Can you imagine the state Education Department planning a comparable outing? We are a state that loves hunting and fishing, but waste is waste. The Game and Fish Commission should be embarrassed to needlessly spend so much money at such a difficult time for the state’s overall finances. The governor and the legislature should review the commission’s budget and examine other state agencies for similarly egregious abuses. It’s just hard to accept that the legislature couldn’t find more money for education when you come across things like this.

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