Columns » Max Brantley

State shell game



What Gov. Mike Beebe wants, Mike Beebe gets. Disputes at the legislature these days are mostly on the fringes.

See Beebe's control of money and the legislature's reflexive approval.  State revenue is declining. The recession shows no sign of short-term improvement. But if Mike Beebe wants a grocery tax cut to cement his re-election in 2010, he will get a grocery tax cut. Manufacturers get tax cuts every time the legislature meets, even with little to show by way of results, so they'll get another cut this year because, well, it wouldn't do to deny gravy to businesses if the working man is going to get a sop.

Bingo operators got a tax cut, too, even though figures show they produce almost nothing for charity, mostly money for themselves.

The “life-saving” trauma system — a new bureaucracy with a dash of socialized medicine — was the Trojan horse for Beebe's whopping tobacco tax increase. That, in turn, leveraged the real prize — tens of millions in federal Medicaid money that gives Gov. Beebe wiggle room for his tax cut and a cash infusion for the governor-controlled corporate welfare fund.

Sound jaded? Yes. Whatever happened to meaningful debate and big-picture perspective?

Amid all the three-card Monte games, some important people have been forgotten. For example: school teachers.

We stake our future on education. We devote a new lottery solely to higher education, where a good half of the students arrive unprepared. We can't solve all the problems with the best possible teacher corps — family circumstances account for too much — but great teachers would help. We've made advancement in teacher pay, but we drive more off with meager health care benefits.

A single school teacher must pay $180 a month, or 47 percent of the premium cost, for health insurance. For family coverage, the teacher must pay 74 percent of the cost, or $770 a month. A single state employee, covered by the public employees' health plan, must pay only 25 percent of his or her premium as a single employee.

Do you think the inexplicable difference might have an impact on teacher recruitment?

The legislature has long neglected teachers, treating them as the “problem” of local school districts. It hasn't increased the minimum mandated local health insurance contribution since 1995. The state Supreme Court made it quite clear that education, meaning teachers, is a state responsibility, but that hasn't prompted meaningful legislative action on health insurance. There's been talk of a $25 million state contribution to teacher health coverage, but that's just a token against years of neglect.

Don't believe it when you hear a legislator — typically male, and covered by the state's good insurance and handsome pension — say teachers would prefer a pay raise over a health benefit. Ask the teacher with more than $9,000 a year in family health insurance costs. When you hear the same legislator say most teachers are covered by their husbands' insurance, ignore the sexism and ask to see the figures. Health insurance coverage is declining in every sector of Arkansas life.

Let me now quote Jim Argue, an education lion during his long tenure in the state Senate: “We have a constitutional duty to place competent teachers in our public school classrooms, and as we compete for teachers with other employment opportunities, it's insane to think we can ignore a health insurance benefit as a factor.”


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