Columns » Warwick Sabin

Exact change

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It was a “Lord God” moment. Even rarer than a sighting of the ivory-billed woodpecker (called the “Lord God” bird for the reaction it inspires) is a politician who changes his mind, admits doing so and does it for the right reasons. That is what happened on Monday at the state Capitol, when Gov. Mike Huckabee announced he was revising his recommendations to the state Board of Education regarding vending machines in the public schools. In a significant policy reversal, Huckabee dropped his allegiance to the concept of local control and instead urged the adoption of statewide restrictions. Back on June 3, Huckabee sent along his initial dictates, which were long on rhetoric and short on action. He said that he believed in health and nutrition standards but didn’t think the state should set them. For someone who talks so often about the dangers of childhood obesity and went so far as to order body mass index report cards sent home to the parents of every Arkansas student, this seemed slightly hypocritical. Already vending machines were banned from elementary schools across the state, which is at least an indication that their contents are harmful. In reality, the “local control” argument and Huckabee’s other tortured pronouncements were merely strained justifications for a decision that rested on political considerations. The soft-drink lobby has been a contributor to Huckabee and local school districts would resent losing the income derived from allowing the vending machines in the schools. And that’s why Huckabee deserves so much credit for reversing course. He is repudiating the special interests in service to good public policy. Granted, the vending machines won’t fully disappear. Like any good politician, Huckabee fashioned a compromise, in which students in junior and senior high schools won’t have access to the machines until 30 minutes after the lunch period ends. Also, only 50 percent of the products dispensed will be required to meet the state’s definition of having “sound nutritional value.” Still, that will help prevent students from substituting junk food and soft drinks for a more healthy breakfast and lunch. And if health statistics improve as a result, health advocates would have the ammunition they need to call for the complete removal of vending machines from the schools. Huckabee says he changed his mind because a host of doctors, policy experts and his own advisors urged him to do so. But clearly the health information was readily available before he made his first set of recommendations and has not changed since June. What changed was the political calculation, and that was probably influenced by Huckabee’s presidential ambitions. After all, he recently spent a week absorbing national media attention as he assumed the chairmanship of the National Governors Association. His platform in that position will revolve around a “Healthy America” initiative modeled after his “Healthy Arkansas” program. It wouldn’t look good if someone took a look at the implementation of his ideas here and decided that he was too quick to sacrifice his principles to please special interests. In that light, the soft-drink lobby and local school districts suddenly seem like small potatoes. Indeed, the president of the Arkansas Soft Drink Association attended Huckabee’s announcement on Monday, and he seemed resigned to the new decision. It’s amazing how the power of special interests can diminish in the face of truly decisive leadership. If only our elected leaders had the courage to do that more often. No matter the reasons, Huckabee did the right thing, and he demonstrated character by forthrightly stating that he changed his mind based on a preponderance of advice and evidence. If a presidential campaign is what it takes for him to move good policies forward, let him keep running.

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