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How to spend billions by sundown 

This is what happens when you waste two months on Church Lady nonsense and special interest power plays and suddenly try to do in a couple of days what you were sent to do in the first place back in the dead of winter. By that I mean spend nearly $8 billion. It’s always been like this in the zany end game of an Arkansas legislative session, term limits or no. You can’t find space even to squeeze into the room for the meeting of the Joint Budget Committee. That’s where the proposed Revenue Stabilization Act and General Improvement Fund — what state government is all about — had appeared the afternoon before as if from thin air, per usual. Actually, these measures emanated from weekend gatherings in back rooms of a half-dozen or so legislative insiders who always wait until the last few days to spring on their 130 or so colleagues how they’ll be spending these billions, and how they’ll do it by sundown, or else. Some say this kind of closed government and brinksmanship government is bad. Others say somebody has to do the hard work and that most legislators won’t. I say both preceding sentences are right. A couple of earnest women are running around button-holing legislators trying to get them to vote to amend that old CHART plan by which the state’s share of the tobacco settlement gets spent. They want to take some interest earnings and send it to community health centers. They manage to get a handsome majority vote, but not enough under the rules. They are exasperated. I tell one of them that you never spend money in the open with a democratic vote. You needed to be in the back rooms weeks ago to do what they wanted to do. While they were doing a slick power-point in public, guys like Sens. Dave Bisbee and Percy Malone and Reps. Bill Stovall and Sam Ledbetter were holed up somewhere with Richard Weiss of Finance and Administration penciling in a billion here and a billion there. Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway, his glasses more rose-colored than ever, tells me I was wrong that morning. He says this will be one of the best sessions ever for education, what with hundreds of millions for facilities and pre-school programs and a new agreed-to distribution formula for colleges and universities. He pooh-poohed my complaint that the per-pupil expenditure will not rise and teachers will get no cost-of-living raises. Alas, I remain unconvinced of the state’s dedication to public education when woefully underpaid teachers get no raises and are told to be grateful their health insurance isn’t about to end. Sen. Jerry Bookout of Jonesboro mumbles that I’m in a slump and haven’t gotten much at all right lately. That might be so. But the thing is that Bookout used to be one of the progressive guys, back when he took on Nick Wilson, but now he’s fallen with Sen. Bob Johnson’s “Brotherhood” on spending capital improvement money for local aggrandizement. The speculation is that Jerry’s seat may pass to his son, Paul, and dad is trying to look into the future to see which side to get on for Paul’s benefit later. But now it looks like House Speaker Stovall may run against Johnson and very well take him out. That would take the head right off the snake and force special interests like Deltic Timber and Oaklawn to find some other quarterback. You know the most amazing about all this? It’s that a reasonably sane and competent state government always emerges from it. That’s better than the alternative, but sadly the best we can hope for.
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