Nationally, newspaper circulation and staffs are deteriorating. This is ominous for the public. As newspaper legwork declines — and it has dropped precipitously in many cities — accountability of public institutions declines.
Arkansas's dominant newspaper, the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, has generally resisted the trend to downsize staff and news content. Yes, I gig the newspaper occasionally, because it's a major institution that deserves inspection, too. But the newspaper's investment in news reporting is important and last Sunday's newspaper was a good example of the dividends.
Democrat-Gazette reporters had a great day, a trifecta of articles marked by time-intensive toil on complicated subjects. In every case, the full and even-handed recitation of facts produced important records on public policy. A summary.
• The gas severance tax — Capitol reporter Seth Blomeley left scarcely a point of view untapped in explaining the sheer idiocy (my word, not his) of the notion that an increase in Arkansas's severance tax would mean an increase in consumers' gas prices. The market dictates price. A marginal overhead increase in one isolated market will not affect the global gas market. It's obvious really. Are gas prices lower in Arkansas because we've forever given gas producers a free ride on the severance tax? You know the answer.
• Education priorities — Reporter C.S. Murphy (coincidentally, Blomeley's spouse) examined high school football coaches' pay and found it shockingly higher than pay for classroom teachers and leaders of other extracurricular activities. Many of the coaches don't have to do anything but coach football, or maybe oversee a P.E. class. Vying for the top spot, at just under $100,000 per year, were coaches in Rogers and Bentonville.
• Legislative boodling — Capitol reporter Michael Wickline tallied annual legislative per diem and expenses and found five lawmakers managed to tap the state in 2007 for more than $50,000 in excess of their salary. When legislators tell you they are paid only $15,000 for part-time work, it's bunk. Counting the per diem and office expense scam, plus free trips, it's more like $50,000 to $60,000 (and all the lobbyist-supplied free steaks and martinis they can guzzle). The best part of the story was Wickline's detail of legislators — Rep. Lamont Cornwell of Benton was the worst offender — who took long, lazy auto trips to non-essential conferences in places like Wyoming and billed taxpayers for the vacations with their spouses. They parlayed mileage reimbursements (then 48.5 cents per mile, but still rising) into thousands of dollars, rather than taking much cheaper air flights. Other state agencies limit travel expenses to the published air fare to prevent this sort of thing. Why not the legislature? (And you, Rep. Pam Adcock, who said she doesn't like to fly. Drive if you must attend dubious conferences, but don't stick taxpayers with the added cost of your phobia.)
It was a Sunday paper to set blood boiling.
Footnote: I noticed a thread among the articles. The chief people lying about the effect of the gas tax, in addition to gas producers, were a Republican legislator, Rep. Aaron Burkes, and a former Republican congressman, Asa Hutchinson, from Republican Northwest Arkansas. The most profligate spending on football coaches? It was in Republican hotbeds where they scream endlessly about taxes and wasteful government spending. Also, two of the Top 10 legislative-expense hounds happened to be tax-fighting Republicans, Rep. Daryl Pace of Benton County and Sen. Denny Altes of Fort Smith. My point? It's the hypocrisy, stupid.