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Brantley: Free lunch Asa 

Gov. Hutchinson has just proved there is a free lunch. Thanks to the recent special legislative session, he can have his money, dodge accountability and claim it's good government.

click to enlarge FREE LUNCH: For Gov. Hutchinson. - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • FREE LUNCH: For Gov. Hutchinson.

Gov. Hutchinson has just proved there is a free lunch. Thanks to the recent special legislative session, he can have his money, dodge accountability and claim it's good government.

He raised $50 million to bring a $200 million federal match for highway construction in the next fiscal year. He did it by raiding general revenue. He calls it a highway program without a tax increase.

That's more or less true. But it was 1) imprudent and 2) wouldn't have been possible without $150 million or so pumped into Arkansas by Obamacare.

He got most of the money, $40 million, by shorting the rest of state government through penurious budgeting. No state employee pay raises. Another percentage drop in the state's inadequate support of higher education. Insufficient money for prisons, State Police and a variety of human programs. The rest he got by transferring to highways the interest on state investments) and also some small portions of fuel tax revenue that had gone to support central government agencies.

If employment stays high and income taxes continue to rise, all may be more or less OK — at least status quo. But the state's 5 percent share of the Medicaid expansion is around the corner. All areas of government have rising costs. If revenues don't grow (and Asa's past tax cuts won't help) difficulties will arise. Hutchinson just wants to get past November 2018 without giving the lean-and-hungry-looking Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin ammunition to challenge him for re-election.

It is no coincidence that virtually every college in Arkansas is raising tuition and room and board fees next year because of the continuing slide in state support. Nor is it coincidence that Asa keeps saying "later" on reaching all kids who need pre-K education.

Hutchinson's power hunger was also on display. One example was his takeover of the state History Commission and transfer of its duties to the Heritage Department, run by political favorite Stacy Hurst. (What does she have on the governor, anyway? She gets plum appointments plus a minimum of $34,000 in Tipton and Hurst florist business from the governor's inaugural festivities, not to mention untold amounts from decorating the Governor's Mansion — which she nominally oversaw as an ex officio Commission member.)

The reason for the History Commission takeover remains cloudy, unless it was simple overkill — a way to get rid of Commissioner Mary Dillard and also discipline her husband, historian Tom Dillard. Their sin: supporting Clarke Tucker, who defeated Stacy Hurst for a House seat.

Then there was the governor's brutal takeover of the Governor's Mansion Commission. He stripped it of its historic oversight of maintenance and operation of the public's mansion. Already, the governor and his wife, Susan, had been on a spending spree at the Mansion, using up operating money, tapping Mansion Association money and relying on who knows what other sources. He glommed $1.1 million from a division of Stacy Hurst's agency for Mansion improvements, some of it for private family quarters.

It's not just the spending that's at issue. Nonprofits that once used the Mansion for fundraisers are complaining that First Lady Susan Hutchinson is not nearly so welcoming (though she is hosting a gospel sing there soon to raise money for spending by the Association she now controls.) Her wish list has included a $156,000 reflecting pool and installation for a piece of shiny metal sculpture donated to the Mansion.

Hutchinson administration officials defended the Mansion move as a move for accountability and Freedom of Information Act compliance. Right. They've been stonewalling our requests for specifics on the redecoration of the governor's office.

KATV has done some fine reporting lately on the $60,000 or so Treasurer Dennis Milligan has spent in public money on furniture and snacks since he took office. The governor has spent 20 times as much in public money and untold sums from private interests for his office, but draws scant attention. Plus, he just got a highway bill financed by punishing every other beneficiary of state government.

It's a free lunch, sure enough. But the table is set only for the Hutchinsons.

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