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Puncturing the puffed-up governor 

Any of you who might be inclined to praise Gov. Mike Beebe for declining his pay raise should proceed to the official fitting room for your dunce caps.

Beebe is a good governor. But he can get a little, or a lot, full of himself.

When he gets puffed up like that, somebody needs to puncture him. Let me take a shot at it.

This supposed pay raise sensitivity of his was wholly for show, for political safety, a hollow grandstanding gesture.

We have Amendment 70 to the state constitution. It raised and set the salaries of our constitutional officers, meaning those whose jobs are separate from the general state employee pay system because they are specifically created by the constitution. This amendment provided that the salaries of persons in these constitutionally specified offices could be raised annually according to prevailing measurements of the cost of living.

The general appropriations bill for these officials and their operations is always one of the first passed in a legislative session. This time, an annual raise of 3.8 per cent was permitted by standard inflationary measurements. So the bill granted that amount.

Please understand that this was the maximum allowable raise, but that the maximum amount is not mandated, much less always wise or timely or politically or morally advisable.

The bill passed overwhelmingly. On Friday, Beebe signed it perfunctorily. It became Act 3 of 2009.

The governor's salary was raised from $84,000 or so to $87,000 or so. This governor spends that difference on one suit, or so it appears to me. Don't get me wrong: That's better than having Jennings Osborne buy your suits for you.

Beebe did not at any time deploy his acclaimed command of state government and influence over the legislature to suggest that constitutional officers go without any raise this time. He did not take the lead in advocating that anyone settle for a raise smaller than the maximum allowable one. He did not raise a finger to use a tool powerfully available to any governor — a line-item veto. In this case that could have been to strike Line 35 in HB 1061. That was the line giving himself a raise.

Such a line-item veto might have left him without any salary at all starting with the new fiscal year July 1. Now that would have taken him beyond grandstanding and into real economic sensitivity.

Only after he had signed this measure routinely did he become aware of percolating displeasure expressed on blogs and in calls to his office.

Being rich from a big settlement or two as a trial lawyer years ago, and getting provided free housing and utilities and a State Police chauffeur, and being worried that he might have made a rare political misstep, Beebe decided to put out a statement. Out of regard for the economic difficulty, he announced, he would be notifying the payroll people not to put his paperwork through for the raise he'd just signed into law for himself without so much as a peep.

Thanks for the three grand you saved us, governor. It's less than that, actually. We'd have gotten some of it back in your state income tax.

Had the governor genuinely wished to hold the line in state government on salaries, he could have moved for a pay freeze throughout all of state government. But he didn't.

He could have capped or trimmed the salaries on his own gubernatorial staff, such as the one he pays his office lawyer that is about $50,000 more than the attorney general gets. But he didn't.

Here's an idea on how the governor might atone. The lieutenant governor, Bill Halter, also rich, gives his entire salary to charity.

Beebe should consider emulating his underling. Some worthy charity would benefit. The governor might experience a little humility. A win-win, they call that.

 

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