Conflicting signals 

Gov. Mike Huckabee, exploring a race for president in Iowa last weekend, separated himself from other GOP wannabes by saying this was not the time to talk about federal tax cuts. The war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina dictate more prudence. If the governor could just deliver some similar straight talk back home. But so far, he’s kept the door open on the notion of a state tax rebate plan to spend unallocated state money. Monday, he got behind still more spending. He called a state bond election Dec. 13 for higher education projects and to refinance the interstate highway bonds. He portrayed the deal as something for nothing. There is no such thing (except for the bond daddies, who’ll score a jackpot on the refinancing). When you refinance — as millions of homeowners know — you may reduce monthly payments on account of lower interest. But if you take equity out for other expenses, you extend the repayment period and thus, over time, incur more cumulative debt. On colleges alone, Huckabee wants to authorize $150 million in new spending. This will obligate state general revenues for many more years to come. College debt isn’t necessarily a bad idea. The schools are growing. They have big needs. But this is just one need on a long list. If testimony before special masters in the Lake View school finance case is any indicator, the list is about to get longer. By our reading of the testimony, the legislature failed the court-mandated standard of adequate and equal education. Some school districts will get less money this year than last. The legislature provided less than 2 percent of the $2 billion in expert-identified school construction needs. At the same time, it spent millions more on local pork — rodeo arenas, garden club amenities and pothole repair for Sen. Bob Johnson in Bigelow. Despite all this, the something-for-nothing crowd was out in full force at the legislature last week. It clamored for rebates of unallocated money. People like Sen. Tracy Steele and the usual rogue’s gallery of Republicans would rather give money back than provide adequate schools. A tax rebate — quickly spent and forgotten — is but a trifle in the face of bigger legislative dreams. Some legislators have joined the highway contractors’ push for a $1.3 billion road construction program. Legislators are hungry to divert $100 million annually to pay for this monumental public works project. One idea would divert vehicle sales tax revenue to roads. Another would repeal a tax credit on insurance premiums. Another would slap a new tax on tires. Yet another would increase license fees, with most of the burden falling on car drivers, not on the heavy trucks that tear up the Arkansas interstates on which we may be about to incur more debt to repair. The greedy local-government lobby, which helped engineer the recent Tax Increment Finance swindle of school taxes, loves the highway plan because it would produce windfall revenues for cities and counties. Good roads are important. But we haven’t failed on road-building like we’ve failed on schools. Arkansas maintains one of the biggest highway systems in the nation despite our poverty and small population. Our kids deserve a similar effort. And we suddenly have several thousand more kids to educate, thanks to Hurricane Katrina. Whatever else we need — and we need a lot — we need a tax rebate least of all.

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