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Against the grain on bonds 

Conventional thinking holds that the college bonds proposed in the special election next Tuesday warrant fewer objections than the highway bonds.

After all, the college debt is one-time, not permanent like the highway debt. The college debt covers specific projects known to voters, not free to the discretion ad infinitum of five commissioners.

So say the conventional thinkers, who come both from the left and right.

College bond advocates have found it advisable to inform voters they may say “yes” to the college bonds and “no” to the highway debt. It wouldn’t surprise me if the college bonds passed and the highway debt didn’t.

If so, we’d wind up with new buildings at our overly abundant two-year colleges but no financial flexibility to do large chunks of interstate highway improvement.

You might have gathered from the intended tone of that last sentence that I see these issues in quite the opposition fashion from the conventional thinking. The college bonds actually are more objectionable than the highway ones.

The $250 million in college bonds would be paid back directly from state general revenue. That’s the money generated from our sales and income taxes and devoted most vitally to public schools, which the courts insist we fund adequately, and Medicaid, the ever-costlier vital underpinning of a poor state’s system of health care.

Bonds for interstate highways, on the other hand, would be paid back quite properly from a designated diesel tax on the most damaging users of the interstates, meaning big trucks, and from federal interstate maintenance funds earmarked for that very purpose and recommended for long-term debt service by the Federal Highway Administration.

Some say the sky will fall and that someday the federal government will stop sending us that interstate highway money, and that, if so, the state would be forced to ante up massive amounts of general revenue to service the highway debt.

But the political pressure in Congress for highway turnback will always prove much too powerful for that, at least as long as the Chinese and Saudis lend our federal government money. If our foreign sugar daddies stop extending debt to our federal treasury, then our problems will be significantly more dire than the inconvenience of $75 million in annual Arkansas highway debt servicing.

Our too-many colleges have other options for raising funds. They have development directors, fund-raising drives and rich alumni. Beyond that, each legislative session some legislators choose to use their greedy, self-aggrandizing portion of the pork slush fund known as the General Improvement Fund to send money to their local colleges.

Interstate highway maintenance, on the other hand, depends solely on user fees. And one of the more breathtaking ironies of the current railing against the highway bonds is this whining about highway money being spent by unelected highway commissioners. Hasn’t anyone noticed the sheer waste, the absurdity and unabashed arrogance of spending from this GIF by our elected legislators?

Relying on elected officials is no panacea. I’d refer some of you to George W. Bush. I’d refer the rest of you to Bill Clinton.

None of that is to say I’ve made a final decision to vote against the college bonds. Kaneaster Hodges, leading the effort to pass them, called last week and made three good points.

One was that colleges that don’t get special pork from their legislators through the GIF shouldn’t be punished because of those that do.

Another was that even if you think we have too many two-year schools, you must admit they stand in position, if properly funded and held to account, to fill the vital gap in the changing economy for people in a poor state who can’t or won’t attend the traditional institutions of higher education, but will need postsecondary learning or training.

The third was the icing on the college bond proposal, which is that it includes funding to put Arkansas colleges and universities into the Internet research network called the e-corridor.

So, to summarize: For the highway bonds; skeptical but ever open-minded on the college bonds.




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