Columns » Max Brantley

Half empty or ... ?

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From where I sit, the legislative session has been the disappointment I expected. When the legislature said its initial response to the Lake View ruling requiring adequate and equal schools was just a down payment on a new model of schools, I knew it wouldn’t be long before we’d be calling the repo man. Money isn’t everything. But a ZERO increase in per pupil support for state public schools next year? A small increase in the number of children offered vital pre-school education? An insufficient increase in health care coverage for teachers? Legislation that allows expropriation of school tax money to help build shopping centers, office buildings and, unbelievably, a Paragould movie theater? Spending half the state surplus to fix up downtown Plumerville and similar pork projects instead of fixing schools? A 40-year payment plan for $2 billion in school building needs? Sen. Jim Argue, who’s fought a good fight for schools, isn’t ready to claim a famous victory for the legislature. He concedes that the legislature’s normal reaction is “minimum response.” But he writes, “I think we’ve done more than you realize. For example, we’re moving pre-K from $40 million to $60 million next year then $80 million in the second year. The new teacher insurance money gets them from 46 percent to almost a 70 percent premium subsidy for single coverage, assuming actuarial projections, while state employees are at 78 percent. I’ll try to even them up next session and explore merging the two systems. And though there’s no COLA the first year, there’s $140 million of new spending for public education.” That’s the best face you can put on it. The other side is that each small gain took a monumental struggle. Too many legislators are happy with what they’ve got in schools. Proof: efforts to preserve tiny schools with inadequate course offerings. It’s disappointing that, once again, a court decision provided an opportunity for a leap forward and the legislature has stutter-stepped. What are worse are the giveaways, from the end of the useful income tax surcharge to a greedy feed of corporate welfare addicts. Argue was a lonely voice against the disastrous consequences of what he calls Totally Irresponsible Financing, the TIF bill that seemed headed to passage at my deadline. The problem is not just the Bruce Burrow shopping centers that will be a template for future giveaways. It is not the Tyson golf course community or the J.B. Hunt real estate projects in Rogers. It is the certainty that cities won’t be able to get enough of this easy money. It takes only a vote of a city council to expropriate school tax growth money to slop powerful local developers. It will happen again and again. Every taxpayer in Arkansas will pay when local growth revenues are transferred from schools to shopping centers. The charms of a new multiplex in Paragould will be cold comfort to poor children in the Delta. There’s still hope in court. Can you really argue legally that the TIF amendment overrode this historic constitutional declaration on school taxes? “Provided, that no such tax shall be appropriated for any other purpose nor to any other district than that for which it is levied.” If so, you might as well declare the whole Lake View decision moot. The legislature has pretty much done that already.

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