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Picking the carcass clean 

Up at the National Governors Conference where Mike Huckabee is, they’re talking about how all American education — P-16, as they put it — must become more seamless, lest we fall even more embarrassingly and hopelessly behind other developed countries. That means pre-kindergarten through four years of college. You start the kids young and guide and ride them all the way through a bachelor’s degree. That’s the idea. Down here our terminology is stuck in K-12, and our heads are stuck in the sand. In the halls of the state Capitol the other morning, I encountered Rich Huddleston, who runs the Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. I asked him how funding was coming for the expansion in pre-school programs that was promised in the special legislative session on education reform last year. He was pleased that the Democratic caucus had made such funding a declared priority and that the appropriation bill had been filed. But he didn’t know where the recommended amounts, $20 million the first year of the biennium and $40 million the second, would actually come from. He even chuckled at the daunting nature of that second-year figure. This was the morning after legislators had met the appropriations bill deadline by filing hundreds of requests for more than $200 million in piddling local capital projects from what’s called the General Improvement Fund. That’s made up on interest earnings on deposits. Some of it will have to be applied to court-ordered school facility improvements. The rest of it is a fresh carcass, and the vultures will make you positively ill. Here’s what happens: Legislators who don’t know their behinds from a hole in the ground know one thing, which is that there’s this thing called the General Improvement Fund. And they know they’d best get their few hundred thousand dollars into the hopper for their community center or sewer improvements or sidewalks. Everybody’s doing it, so, you know, you may as well jump off the Arkansas River bridge, too. State Sen. Tim Wooldridge of Paragould, for example. I praised him the other day for daring to speak up against the use of this fund for legislative indulgence. But here’s what he told me in the Capitol corridor shortly after I finished visiting with Huddleston: Standing around in the Senate, his colleagues will tell him that of course he’s right. But then they’ll say they can’t be the only ones to go home empty-handed. And, yes, he put in his own bills shortly before the deadline. Why should Greene County suffer because of one guy’s quirky conscience? Take State Rep. Jeremy Hutchinson of Little Rock merely laughed when I growled to him about the General Improvement Fund. His story was that he and House Republicans tried to stop this outrage two years ago and I didn’t give them any columnizing help. That’s not exactly the way I remember it. Hutchinson and House Republicans shut down the session irresponsibly before the Revenue Stabilization Act had been passed. And I wrote a half-dozen columns about the General Improvement nonsense, most of them approximately as angry as this one. Anyway, a left-of-center columnist has no influence with these guys. Still, am I obliged to do more than complain, but offer a solution? Perhaps. Let me do so. They should take money for school facilities and pre-K expansion off the top of the General Improvement Fund. Anything left over should be escrowed for school facilities down the road. Higher education should endure a building moratorium or find rich benefactors. Local communities ought to take care of their own purely local needs.
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