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An orgy of self-service 

Memory does not fetch up a single session of the Arkansas legislature marked by so much pandering and selfishness and so little regard for the future as the 2005. The long and futile session sputters to an end this week in a literal orgy of waste and self-serving. Up to the last, the lawmakers were giving away the public treasure to private interests and hoarding much of it for personal political slush funds. In what must be the signature act of the 2005 General Assembly, they struck a deal in the Senate Monday to set aside $53 million of your taxes to divide equally among themselves so that they might curry favor with influential groups back home. It is a hybrid form of public campaign funding that began eight years ago when term limitations kicked in. Were they unsuccessful, the $53 million might have been applied to the state’s court-ordered obligation to upgrade the state’s crumbling public schools, estimated to cost $2 billion. The legislature decided to shoulder only 5 percent of the obligation. Later legislatures will have to figure out how to do it with what’s left of the state’s fiscal superstructure. Only a handful of legislators seemed to give any thought to how the people’s business will be carried out beyond this year or at least past their own brief tenures at the Capitol. Those were fortunately well placed enough that they saved our children from even greater plunder. Four members of the Senate Revenue and Taxation Committee were able to block several of the worst tax exemptions for big industries, which would have sharply reduced funds for public education in the years ahead. The membership at large was prepared to pass all of them, including giveaways for the communication giants and the big timber companies. It took the personal intervention of Speaker Bill Stovall in a committee of the House of Representatives to stop Deltic Timber Corp. from stripping away protections for the water supply for Central Arkansas. Deltic wanted to build a luxury subdivision on the slopes above the drinking-water intake on Lake Maumelle, which the public built for its water supply. A huge majority of the legislature was eager to let the company do it even though demolishing the power of eminent domain for a water utility might have put their own communities’ health at risk one day. With the same thriftless abandon the legislature this week gave cities and counties authority to take away taxes that were levied for the public schools whenever commercial developers need the money to subsidize the construction of shopping malls, office buildings or whatever. Tax increment financing, as it is called, confiscates the growth in school tax receipts in a designated area for 25 years to pay for improvements that aid commercial developers. Although the constitutional amendment that permits TIFs was supposed to encourage development in impoverished areas it will have precisely the opposite result. Owing to the perverse working of the constitution, money will be taken in near perpetuity from the meager local receipts of every school district in Arkansas, including the poorest Delta schools, to pay for high-dollar development in the richest communities in the state. The reverse Robin Hood principle is the dogma of George Bush Republicanism, but this is a Democratic legislature. We need to at least try to discover the reason that so many men and women who only recently left private pursuits for a short legislative career would be so heedless of the future and pander so eagerly to special interests. My candidate is term limits. Those who assign prophetic powers to the Founding Fathers now have further evidence. They talked about limiting the terms of lawmakers and executives in the Constitution of the United States, but Madison, Hamilton, Franklin and the other brains insisted that it not be done. People whose service will be limited, they said, will have incentives to think only about the moment and their own immediate self-interest. “Nothing appears more plausible at first sight [than term limits], nor more ill-founded upon close inspection ..., ” Hamilton wrote in Federalist Paper 72. The brilliant Virginian, Gouverneur Morris, explained one reason the convention rejected term limits: “The ineligibility proposed by the clause as it stood tended to destroy the great motive to good behavior, the hope of being rewarded by a reappointment. It was saying to him, ‘make hay while the sun shines.’” Let someone else worry about tomorrow. The harvest this year is the most bountiful yet.
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