Columns » John Brummett

You call this a clash?

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One headline declared that Gov. Mike Beebe and Lt. Gov. Bill Halter were clashing over how to spend lottery money on scholarships.

But they weren't quite. What they were doing was communicating — albeit impersonally through a third party — on an issue of importance to Arkansas people.

Communication is mostly a good thing. It's why people have meetings, not that these two or their people have had many. (One, I'm told, after which Halter put out a public statement that Beebe thought a tad presumptuous.)

This impersonal conversation has taken place through the daily prints.

Following up proudly on his role as champion of the lottery amendment, Halter issued a lengthy statement of principles about implementation of the lottery and its scholarships. The document ran eight pages and addressed, among other things, how we might best avail ourselves of what Halter contends will come to $100 million a year for new college scholarships.

The document was altogether cogent, thorough and forward-thinking. A little nervy? Perhaps, but, hey, the lottery is Halter's deal. I instantly sized up the document as a solid attempt at leadership, irrespective of whether it could engender followship.

Beebe's press office responded by finding a couple of things in the eight pages it didn't agree with, then saying so in the paper when reporters asked.

Presto — we had ourselves a so-called clash.

We've been waiting for these two to fight. Halter first declared as a Democratic opponent to Beebe. Then he backed down. Then Halter talked about his quest to be a transformative leader rather than a transactional one, which, presumably, he deemed Beebe to be.

(Transformative is way cooler than transactional, since the transformative guy seeks sweeping change while the transactional guy simply wants to negotiate a reasonable solution from the challenges of the moment. Obama — transformative; Clinton — transactional.)

Two disagreements in eight pages — alas, a clash must start somewhere.

So here are the two differences:

• Halter would like us to set up a lottery scholarship plan, then implement it before we actually get the lottery up and running. He wants to do that by plugging into the new plan millions of surplus funds sitting idle from the state's 21 existing scholarship programs.

Beebe thinks we should wait for the lottery before we start spending lottery money. He believes that the more prudent course in the interim would be to more aggressively utilize existing programs while maintaining some cash balances in the event of shortfalls.

Fiscal responsibility bestows the advantage here to Beebe, although there's no good reason to have a lot of money sitting around not doing anyone any good.

• Once the lottery is up and generating its own money, Halter would like to distribute the proceeds through a completely overhauled, streamlined and simplified system of scholarships. Beebe wants the lottery to be supplemental to what we have now and is especially keen on keeping a new needs-based assistance program his administration has championed.

Halter says the needs-based portion could be folded into the complete overhaul, as could money for adults going back to college as nontraditional students.

Halter says 21 scholarship programs are too many and unwieldy. He says the most helpful lesson from Georgia's innovative lottery scholarships is that they are simple, universal and fair. That is to say that everyone has an equal shot at getting one and that the qualifications for getting and keeping the scholarships year to year can be clearly laid out in 30 seconds.

The early advantage on this second one? Why, I do believe it goes to Halter. He'd do everything Beebe wants, but in a consolidated, coordinated and more user-friendly way.

Halter claims to be ecstatic not about any clash, but the dialogue itself.

“There are a lot worse ways to spend a legislative session than arguing about how to spend money for higher education,” he said.

 

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