Legislators can read, possibly excepting one or two, and it was a sentence on page 72 of the masters' report that got their attention.
It went like this: "From the largely uncontradicted evidence presented by the movants, we must conclude that the state has not lived up to the promise made by the 84th General Assembly Regular and Extraordinary Sessions of 2003 to make education the state's first priority."
Let me help with the legalese.
A movant is someone formally seeking court action. In this case the movants were the school districts asking the Arkansas Supreme Court to find that the Legislature had backslid unacceptably in the recent session on the constitutional and court-ordered responsibility to provide adequate public schools ahead of all else.
In the cited sentence, the key one in the entire 83-page composition, the masters appointed by the Supreme Court to delve into the issue were saying that, yeah, it looks like the school districts are right.
That means the Supreme Court is likely to declare school funding unconstitutional all over again and force a special legislative session to spend from a surplus that we can hope the Katrina influx won't require.
Legislators didn't like that word, "uncontradicted." It sounded to them like their lawyer, Attorney General Mike Beebe, didn't stand up for them.
You can tell them that Beebe and his staff didn't have much to go on. But legislators respond by saying that Beebe advised them along the way, telling them he could defend their actions in court.
He told legislators last winter they could get away with not increasing the annual cost-of-living adjustment for schools for a year because of the massive increase they had bestowed on schools the year before. The masters didn't buy it. He told legislators they could defend themselves by citing the $35 million bailout of the troubled teachers' health insurance system. The masters said that was a decent thing, but that it didn't have much to do with quality education.
Beebe can't blame a bad case when he advised in the building of the case.
Most of the evidence presented to the masters was driven by the schools. The state's evidence was scant by comparison. Mostly, state Sens. Jim Argue of Little Rock and Shane Broadway of Bryant explained themselves defensively on cross-examination from the school districts' flashy lawyer, David Matthews.
I don't mean to pile on Beebe, who wants to be your next governor. Though he's responsible for it, he didn't present the case to the masters himself.
Over two decades in the state Senate he was the best and most responsible legislative leader of a generation. That doesn't necessarily mean he'd be a good governor, though I still think he would, the last several days notwithstanding.
Republicans have hit him effectively on his Achilles heel, which is his coziness with certain special business interests. Bill Halter, highly accomplished as a Rhodes Scholar and Clinton administration high-up, has indicated he may challenge Beebe in the Democratic primary.
I spoke with Halter the other day. His seeming confidence surprised me, considering that he presumes to challenge in the primary a Democrat with a big organizational head start and well over a million dollars in campaign funds.
I'm reminded of what Beebe tells me I once told him, though I don't remember saying it. It was that journalists wait until the battle is over and come down and shoot the wounded. It's an old joke.
I don't think he's so wounded as to be defenseless, so I don't intend to shoot him. At this point I merely observe his injuries, and wonder if he can do anything about the bleeding.
Incidentally, Gov. Mike Huckabee says he's thinking of hiring his own lawyer -- dumping Beebe, in other words -- for further arguments on this issue before the Supreme Court.