Columns » Max Brantley

The bond battle

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I was wrong. I believed Gov. Mike Huckabee when he predicted passage of the two proposed bond issues, for highways and colleges, on last week’s ballot.

Huckabee had a great sales pitch — a free lunch. Better interstates and better colleges at no cost was the cry.

On the other side, you had truckers (who likes them?) who said the governor wanted to take the ballot from voters and give it to the Highway Commission. This was not a compelling argument to me. We already trust the Highway Commission with enormous discretion. More compelling was the fact that, because of how we piecemeal our road construction, bond financing doesn’t gain many advantages in speed and costs a lot more than paying as you go. But nobody talked much about that.

I thought the highway bonds would pass by a close vote. I thought the college bonds would pass easily. Instead, they failed by about 600 votes. And in them hangs, again, my oft-told tale of the sophisticated Arkansas voter.

Yes, antagonism to the highway bonds washed over on the college bonds to some degree. Yes, some people voted against both because Huckabee was behind them. Yes, many college employees didn’t bother to turn out because the specific projects didn’t benefit them. Yes, the UA’s billion-dollar fund campaign, the huge sums spent on athletic facilities and coaches and the past decade of inflation-busting tuition increases tamped down the enthusiasm for shoveling still more money to colleges.

But, clearly, voters did draw distinctions. About 11,000 more voted in favor of the college bonds than the highway bonds. Pulaski County, where media campaigns were pervasive, smashed the highway bonds but handily endorsed the college bonds. So much for Huckabee’s theory that confusion about the highway bonds hurt both proposals.

I don’t think voters were confused. The highway bond proposal — even Huckabee admitted this election night — authorized a new revolving credit line for highway debt. Some voters REALLY don’t like that. The proposal also promised an increasing state debt burden without any guarantee that federal money would pay it off. There also was no emergency. No new work would have begun for at least five years. Also, many voters live miles from interstate highways, sole beneficiaries of the bonds.

Voters are far more inclined to favor specific projects, as outlined in the college bond proposal. They also retain a generally positive outlook toward colleges. But the advertising campaign was mostly about highways, on account of the truck lobby’s opposition. Huckabee’s heavy-handed pressure on the UA Board to back the highway bonds turned at least a few more voters sour on the college bonds, too. With a 600-vote margin, every vote counted.

The election probably indicates that voters have tired of the long-time incumbent governor. That’s not surprising. It won’t hurt Huckabee nationally, any more than it hurt Bill Clinton. It might even help that Huckabee can’t now be branded the architect of a huge increase in government debt. But entering his final year in office, he can no longer say he’s a guy who always gets things done.

The governor’s twin failure wasn’t because voters were stupid or misled. He does himself no service by suggesting it. Voters absorb information about issues and make decisions informed by that knowledge. Snappy putdowns of the opposition don’t overcome that bedrock fact. Voters nearly always get exactly what they want. And deserve.


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