Columns » John Brummett

Murphy's Law for asphalt czars


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Until Sunday, Madison Murphy, oil scion from El Dorado, was thought of as a small-government conservative.  

What happened Sunday was that the statewide newspaper in Little Rock quoted Murphy as saying the Highway and Transportation Department needs all those hundreds of state cars it maintains for employees.  

The newspaper further quoted him as saying that 135 employees holding administrative positions in the department's central office need to use their state cars to commute between work and home. That, he explained, is because they are on-call around the clock and might get called out to some kind of road emergency.

I think, then, that I will put in a request for a company car. I am, after all, on-call around the clock, whenever my brain is percolating with column thoughts.  

Let us say, just for example, that I got a call in the middle of the night from a source saying that Gov. Mike Beebe had gone mad and was running nude through Governor's Mansion neighborhood, eluding both his security detail and a phalanx of city patrolmen.  

To better prepare me to write a column on this extraordinary spectacle, I would stagger to my personal vehicle, the one on which I make a personal monthly payment, and drive to the area in question for on-site reporting.

By what we will call Murphy's Law, I would require a company car just for such an occasion.  

I predict I will not be granted this vehicle. The private newspaper company employing me is frugal on its outgo in light of being a for-profit enterprise beset by economic realities.

A state agency is not inconvenienced by the forced efficiencies of profit-seeking nor by the constraints of economic realities. That goes double for an agency like the Highway Department that exists with constitutional independence and with dedicated revenue.

That is why I have called our Highway Commission the "asphalt czars."

Murphy is chief among them as a Mike Huckabee appointee to a 10-year term on the Highway Commission. Now beginning his last two years, he is the newly ascended chairman.

Let us insert the rich irony here: Before going on the Highway Commission, Murphy got appointed by Huckabee in the 1990s to a special right-winger's commission — indeed, it was known as the Murphy Commission — that recommended all manner of efficiencies to limit the size of state government and eliminate waste to keep faith with the taxpayers.

Beebe, who is trying to reduce state government's vehicular fleet because of unfavorable press attention, expressed displeasure with the Highway Commission for blowing off his executive order to reduce the number of vehicles, as is its right as a constitutionally independent agency.  

Murphy was responding to the governor, explaining that he had evaluated the Highway Department's fleet high and low and determined that the department needed just about very one of those cars.  

That is surely what his staff told him. Constitutional independence can lead to an insularity of experience by which a commission appointee can become overly dependent on the presumed expertise of the professional staff, thus losing broad perspective. The appointee comes to serve the trusted state employee, not the forgotten taxpayer.

This independence also can lead to an arrogance of power that, from time to time, needs to be reined in from the outside. This next legislative session with all these new small-government conservative Republicans — that would seem an ideal time.

A special highway subcommittee to hold the agency's appropriation hostage until the very end of the session, extracting whatever amount it determines to be spent to maintain vehicles it deems inessential — that is the route I would recommend.

Oh, I almost forgot: I also would propose referring to the people a constitutional amendment to put the Highway Department back under the governor. It would never pass, since people do not trust themselves to elect good governors. But it might get a few of our public cars out of private driveways.


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