Columns » John Brummett

Let's play spend the surplus

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Let’s take 20 or so column inches and see if we can’t spend $840 million.

In rounded terms, that is what the state government budget surplus is projected to total when the legislature gathers in January to begin abusing it.

Such unencumbered bounty presents a rare challenge and rare opportunity. The rare challenge is to spend the money wisely, responsibly and accountably. The rare opportunity is not to miss the chance to make bold, positive investments we couldn’t contemplate otherwise.

Beginning with a checkbook balance of $840 million:

1. The state is under Supreme Court order to improve and equalize substandard public school facilities statewide. A working estimate of those needs is $250 million, but legislators tell me the figure is growing and that they expect the final tally to be $350 million. Some legislators say there aren’t enough contractors to get that much work done in two years, which is the operative state budget period. They contend there’s no need to appropriate that much. But why miss the opportunity? You have the money; the court mandate isn’t going away; and the state has no greater purpose than providing stellar educational facilities. Even if the schools couldn’t get the $350 million worth of work done in two years, the authority would exist and could be carried over to leaner times. So, let’s take $350 million from $840 million, leaving $490 million.

2. The state’s colleges and universities requested more than $800 million in capital projects, but the state Higher Education Coordinating Council reviewed those requests for need and propriety, then cut them in half, even more. The agency approved $318 million. The voters recently overwhelmingly approved bonded debt to cover $150 million of those. That leaves $168 million. Why go in debt to do half a loaf when you have the cash on hand to do it all? Let’s appropriate $168 million. Taking that from $490 million leaves $322 million.

3. We must begin, at least, to take the sales tax off food. Ending the grocery tax would take $240 million a year out of the ongoing general revenue budget for operations. Gov.-elect Mike Beebe has suggested, as a start, cutting the tax in half, meaning by $120 million a year, or by $240 million over the biennium. There is some legitimate concern about an economic downturn. So, let’s take $240 million from the surplus and put it in a rainy day fund with a trigger that would begin spending it in the ongoing operations budget, up to $120 million a year, if tax collections ran short of the budget. We would buy ourselves two years to revisit overall tax policy. So, with $240 million set aside for that rainy day, we are left with $82 million.

4. Beebe got elected promising to set aside $50 million in some kind of economic development superfund that could be tapped to prime the pump to attract a super-project, like a auto plant. Let’s give him the $50 million, leaving $32 million.

5. As it happens, the state has ongoing debt-service obligations for prison bonds and such that must come off the top. That’s about $30 million.

That leaves $2 million, free and clear.

Legislators like to keep something for themselves to divide equally to take home for purposes of their arbitrary and wholly unaccountable choosing, such as for rural volunteer fire department equipment, new roofs on their community centers, rodeos or football fields for high schools without football teams.

We have 135 legislators. Dividing $2 million by 135 gives each of our legislators almost $15,000.

If that’s too little for them to mess with, we can tack the $2 million on the rainy day fund. Or, I’m still thinking about that Arkansas Newspaper Hall of Fame, with J. N. Heiskell, Spider Rowland, Harry Ashmore, Orville Henry, John Robert Starr and me in the inaugural class. As the only living inaugural inductee, I’d need to handle the money myself.

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