Columns » Max Brantley

Round one: Asa!

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The 2006 race for governor is well underway. I give the 2005 round to date to Republican Asa Hutchinson. Hutchinson has a built-in advantage. He’s not serving in public office. His likely opponent, Democrat Mike Beebe, is attorney general. That is a big problem for Beebe. It is always easy to run against the legislature. Hutchinson has been doing that, with some success in a couple of notable areas. Beebe is required by law to defend the legislature. Examples: 1) Eminent domain and 2) public schools. First about eminent domain. Hutchinson has been trying to stir a storm over the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said private development could be construed as a public purpose (job creation) in allowing condemnation of private land. Hutchinson says, correctly, if in an overly alarmist manner, that Arkansas law allows such condemnations. Beebe has said there are adequate constitutional protections against it. Beebe is dodging. The constitution empowers redevelopment districts to create jobs and the enabling statute explicitly grants condemnation power, even on vacant land, to achieve this public purpose. Beebe dug himself deeper by claiming the TIF statute never says land can be taken for private use. It says, in fact, that a redevelopment project may include making land or buildings available “for development, redevelopment or rehabilitation by private enterprise….” Hutchinson has the liberty of endorsing the concept of TIFs (and its criminal raid on school property taxes), thus staying in good graces with developers. But he can rouse the peanut gallery by saying the law needs tightening up. Hutchinson is not likely to get specific about solutions. He doesn’t want to risk stepping on the toes of wealthy Northwest Arkansas developers intent on pilfering school taxes to build freeway exits to their shopping centers. On school finance, Hutchinson said in a speech last week that the legislature was wrong to freeze state school aid while spending $52 million on local pork projects. Damn straight. He made the pronouncement just as special masters were putting the final touches on an evaluation of the legislature’s compliance with the “equal and adequate” requirements of the Supreme Court ruling in the Lake View school finance case. The masters agreed with Hutchinson’s view Monday, blowing away virtually everything Beebe had argued in the legislature’s defense. Beebe had no choice in this fiasco. The attorney general is duty bound to defend a state statute, however sorry. But it’s worse than that. Beebe’s office actually helped develop the school finance law. It is, again, easy for Hutchinson to criticize the legislature. He has no official obligation to find more money. Nor have you heard him tell recipients of pork barrel money that he’d have vetoed their specific projects. He’ll dance around that fine point. Hutchinson, a veteran pol, shows he can punch. Beebe can’t take to the ropes forever, dodging and weaving in hopes of avoiding serious damage. He must counter-punch effectively. Maybe Beebe really does need a preliminary opponent for a warm-up. Bill Halter, the North Little Rock native and Rhodes Scholar who wound up acting head of Social Security under Bill Clinton, yearns to run. If he does — and Beebe can’t spar effectively with him — cue the “Rocky” theme.

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