Columns » Max Brantley

The staff to nobody

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Lt. Gov. Mark Darr slunk out of town last week after delivering a one-sentence resignation letter to Secretary of State Mark Martin. He petulantly refused to resign to the governor, whose job it is to declare the vacancy.

Good riddance to bad rubbish as the saying goes.

But business remains — and not only the question of whether Darr could face criminal prosecution for using campaign and taxpayer money for personal expenses.

First is the question of whether Gov. Mike Beebe will call a special election to fill the job for the rest of the year. Republicans in the legislature favor a law change to avoid the necessity. They don't want Democrat John Burkhalter to win a special election and get a leg up in November for the permanent job. Their main candidates, state Reps. Charlie Collins and Andy Mayberry, can't run for a state office during the term of their legislative seats this year.

Second is the question of Darr's staff. He was overstaffed to begin with for a job that has essentially no duties except to act as governor when the governor is out of state and ceremonially preside over the Senate. He employed longtime perennial Republican patronage job-filler Bruce Campbell for $75,132 as chief of staff. Amber Pool gets paid $57,564 to be communications director. Josh Curtis, a Republican JP in Saline County, does something or other for $51,564. Raeanne Gardner gets paid $33,660 to answer the occasional phone call. That's $217,920 in salaries and the state must spend another $48,000 for employee insurance, retirement and other costs.

But what now? There are no constituents for an empty office. There were scant duties to begin with. There are none now. Should taxpayers pay $22,160 a month for a four-person staff to no one?

But these are Republican patronage jobs. Republican legislators, to date, have said they want to keep their cronies on the payroll. Campbell is father-in-law of powerful Republican Rep. Duncan Baird, who's running for state treasurer. Curtis has worked for the Republican Party. Nobody in the GOP majority wants to throw their friends out in the cold.

If only Republicans weren't so cold about people they don't know. This is the same party fighting an increase in Arkansas's $6.25 an hour minimum wage, which is paid to people who really toil. Darr's staff makes from $16 to $36 an hour, including on holidays and vacations, for filing their nails. Extended unemployment compensation? Republicans are fighting it. Welfare for Darr's Gang? Another matter.

The Republican Party hopes to win another round of state elections by demonizing Obamacare, which extends government-aided health insurance to more of the working poor. Darr's Gang of Four gets the state's heavily subsidized health insurance, with its friendly rates and coverage.

Republican reluctance to pare this expense is another example of the cloistered world of the Capitol. Those under the dome are all pretty comfortable. It's easy in that bubble to believe that the rest of the world lives the same way — good pay, good vacation and holiday time, good health insurance, good free parking, work days that end at the stroke of 4:30, legislators (if you're in the right party) who look after you.

The working people of Arkansas aren't so lucky. Republicans in the legislature should urge Darr's staff to move on — with some brief severance (they've already had six weeks' worth). At most, they could justify a one-person, low-pay skeleton staff to answer whatever phone or mail might arrive. If the welfare checks continue, Republicans lawmakers will have put, as Darr once put it, a stake in the ground about their position on government waste. For!

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