Columns » Warwick Sabin

Stuck in neutral

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With a Democratic governor taking office next month after more than 10 years of a Republican administration, you would think lots of things would change.

You would be wrong.

So far, Gov.-elect Mike Beebe’s only official actions have been reappointments of state agency and department heads serving under outgoing Gov. Mike Huckabee — 15 at last count.

It would be one thing if Beebe kept a handful of unusually competent administrators. But his wholesale retention of Huckabee’s cabinet covers almost the entire range of state government, from education to labor to prisons to health and human services.

In defending the decisions, Beebe spokesman Zac Wright said most of the reappointed officials are “Clinton people,” rather than “Huckabee people,” as if the only criticism would be insufficient partisan loyalty.

But Clinton left office 15 years ago, and the “Clinton people” will be working in their fourth consecutive gubernatorial administration. That means these unelected officials will have served longer and amassed more knowledge and power than their elected counterparts, who are term-limited.

In fact, if we’re just going to keep people around based on experience, why even have elections? Why not allow a permanent civil service bureaucracy to run state government?

Of course, Beebe has been around the state Capitol as long as the people he is retaining, which is a big reason he decided to keep them around. Besides the personal relationships he built with them, Beebe has a healthy respect for their technocratic expertise, because that’s his greatest strength, too.

At the same time, the reappointments reflect weakness, in that they signal a desire to play it safe. It’s as if Beebe decisively won election to the state’s highest office only to timidly preserve the status quo and avoid rocking the boat.

And that could undermine his efforts to actually make real changes in state policy, by emboldening opponents who think he isn’t willing to go the distance.

To some degree, that’s already happening. During his campaign this year, Beebe promised to eliminate the sales tax on food. Yet, after he won the election, he quickly began to scale back the short-term expectations, indicating that he will propose to phase out the tax over several years.

Now, sure enough, key members of the legislature are publicly lining up to resist the idea altogether.

“I just don’t favor taking the grocery tax off,” House Speaker-elect Benny Petrus said in a recent interview. Jack Critcher, the incoming Senate president pro-tem, also has said that getting rid of the grocery tax could endanger essential state programs by removing a large, reliable revenue stream.

And behind the scenes, you can be sure that Beebe is also getting pressure from food retailers, who not only receive a fee for collecting the grocery tax, but who also earn interest on the tax receipts before they pass them along to the state treasury.

For his part, Beebe has been busy this month assuring everyone that their interests — the status quo — will be protected.

“We can do this … in a fashion that does not adversely impact those necessary programs, chief of which is education, and most important is ... quality pre-school,” he told a conference of child advocates.

“I want you to believe that I want to do it in a way that’s responsible and doesn’t adversely affect your ability to deliver your services,” he promised the Arkansas School Boards Association.

And at a meeting of the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation, Beebe “acknowledged that some in the audience may fear that there would be a move to eliminate agriculture exemptions so as to replace state revenue that would be lost if the state tax is removed from grocery sales,” according to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. “But he told them they have nothing to fear about him doing that.”

The more Beebe tells everyone that nothing is going to change, the more he will ensure that is the case. And that’s exactly the problem.

His most memorable campaign promise was his call to abolish the grocery tax. If he continues to give a little bit here and a little bit there, all the while surrounding himself with advisors and interests who are accustomed to things as they are, he’ll have a hard time fulfilling his promise. The resulting blow to his credibility and authority could cripple his ability to achieve his other goals — not to mention get re-elected.

“I think it’s a fight,” Beebe said of his proposal to repeal the grocery tax.

It’s a fight he can’t afford to lose.

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