Columns » John Brummett

Educate, medicate, incarcerate, ingratiate

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It's happened several times. I'm in some small to midsize Arkansas town to talk to the Democratic women or even the Republican women or the chamber of commerce. We gather in some sparkling little building with a meeting room adjoining a kitchen.

The local legislator smugly explains to me that we are assembled in a fine community center he or she got built by coming home from a legislative session with a share of surplus money for local capital projects in what's called the General Improvement Fund.

The point, you see, is that I've spent many words and much energy bellyaching over the years about how state legislators are so small-minded that all they want to do with their state legislating careers is come home with money from this GIF for these kinds of projects — play-pretties, I like to call them — when, in fact, the state would be better off reserving these funds for legitimate statewide needs.

I've also insisted repeatedly that, to the extent that state government can and should expend money for local projects, it ought to be done when tax collections are bountiful — as they most certainly are not right now.

I've also contended that local projects ought to be pre-audited rather than plugged into this General Improvement Fund willy-nilly by legislators.

I've even gone so far as to say there ought to be some local match for these funds.

The truth is that, while the community center is indeed nice, we could have had our little meeting at the school cafeteria or in the back room behind the folding doors at the Sizzlin'.

None of this endears me to state legislators, particularly rural ones, who decry that liberal you-know-what in Little Rock who writes for the newspaper and resents tax money being returned to needy folks out in the country.

But I'm just being fiscally conservative. And I'm just saying taxpayer money doesn't belong to legislators. And I'm just saying there ought to be some local responsibility to go with local control.

And I'm just saying that, when times are tough for state government, as they are now, we need to fall back on that old maxim that state government's job is to “educate, medicate and incarcerate,” meaning spend for schools, Medicaid and on prisons, not to placate or ingratiate.

So you can imagine that I'm worked up about what happened last week at this fiscal session of the legislature.
Expecting state budget constraints in the troubled economy, Gov. Mike Beebe last year managed to get $15 million that would normally go to this “legislative side” of GIF set aside for reconsideration in this fiscal session in case he might need it for one-time shortfalls in the regular state budget.

So now he says he needs it, or some of it. Counties deserve reimbursement from the state for holding state prisoners. It's a sure-enough state obligation, one that relieves local governments.

But legislators don't want to give up their play-pretties. So they have negotiated with Beebe and extracted this: If the governor takes any or all of this $15 million, they can replenish it at the end of the state fiscal year June 30 from state agency fund balances.

There'll always be extra dollars since state agencies can't spend to the penny over a year's time. In the past, that money has always been held in time deposits, earning interest, to be made available at the next session for the next GIF.

State legislators now propose to tap that money immediately, losing the interest earnings and using now what they always previously saved for later.

Sen. Jim Luker of Wynne, a fine fellow who once told me at the Clarendon Chamber of Commerce banquet that I was all wrong on these local projects, did warn his colleagues that they were “eating our own seed corn.”

But, hey, they're hungry.

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