Columns » John Brummett

Government at the freshman level

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This was State Government 101. Whenever a state agency budget got brought up the other morning at the legislative Joint Budget Committee, Sen. David Bisbee of Rogers, the co-chairman who’s been around awhile, a surviving dinosaur, would explain to committee members what the agency did. Claims Commission? It considers claims for liability damages against the state in lieu of lawsuits, since the state can’t be sued under the usual tort system in its own courts. But none of that matters unless we legislators appropriate the money to pay the awards. So, we’re really judge, jury and treasurer. Capitol Zoning Commission? The city of Little Rock leaves planning and zoning around the Capitol and the Governor’s Mansion to us, so that we’ll protect the integrity and all, and we legislators must appropriate the money from general revenues. Real Estate Commission? It regulates the real estate industry and collects its own budget from license fees on the professionals in regulates. That’s called “special revenue.” Even so, the commission can’t actually spend its own money unless we legislators pass the appropriation. You see, we legislators are very important. The 50 people sitting around a maze-like configuration of desks and listening to this elementary dissemination of information were merely the policy-makers for state government, which is only charged with educating our children and building our roads and locking up our criminals and paying for poor old people’s care in nursing homes. These are the faces and this is the public dialogue of the era of term limits, the most restrictive in the country. Most of the state government veterans who sit in the audience as lobbyists for colleges and human service provider organizations -- tax receivers -- are at once amused and alarmed by the glaring lack of knowledge, much less wisdom, arrayed before them. Yes, term limits have a good side -- freshness, mainly -- but are mostly bad. The rampant naivete is less a matter of charming innocence than a matter of troubling ignorance. It’s less a tribute to citizen legislating than an exercise in unknowing legislating. It enhances danger and reduces the prospect for clever innovation. A legislator needing to know what an agency does before he votes on its budget is one who might not appreciate the agency’s importance, and thus might do it harm. It’s also one who hasn’t much chance to offer any meaningful recommendations by which the agency might run more effectively and inefficiently, since he only learned about it moments ago. The real-world business principles that are always extolled in politics really don’t apply. Experience in one kind of business does not qualify one to engage in another kind of business; otherwise, we could all do each others jobs instantly. Yet we perpetuate the myth that experience in any business commends one for immediate government expertise. What most helps one shape better government is vast experience in it, an advantage that can be taken the wrong way with Nick Wilson and the right one with, say, Dave Bisbee, disregarding for the moment his caveman opposition to Gov. Mike Huckabee’s idea to let illegal immigrants’ kids get college scholarships if they qualify for them. A vacuum – that’s what we get from a legislative session operating as State Government 101. And it’s not only nature that abhors a vacuum. It’s also people like Sens. Jim Holt of Springdale and Denny Altes of Fort Smith, who’ll fill it with impractical anti-immigrant legislation or demagogic bills to defy court rulings on gay foster parents. It makes one wonder if we wouldn’t be better off taking term limits to its logical extreme. The Legislature would meet in regular session only to do budgets. It would meet otherwise only by its own call or the governor’s for a special session with a tightly constrained agenda. That would provide narrower focus to the on-the-job training and lessen the opportunity for vacuum-filling. Listen to me: I’ve become a small-government conservative, at the state level, anyway.

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