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While we were sleeping ... 

HOT SPRINGS — From last week's annual Arkansas Rural Development Conference, where officials of small communities pick up grants, I came away with a few observations.

The first is that Secretary of State Mark Martin, the Republican having trouble getting his bearings in state constitutional office, is, shall we say, not a scintillating public speaker.

It does not appear likely that he will be able to talk himself out of very much of the abundant trouble into which he has already found himself. That's mostly over dubious spending in his office that defies the tea party spirit that elected him, including a reported $54,000 for an employees' retreat in which a Wal-Mart-endowed institute at John Brown University was supposed to inspire everyone to work in a value-oriented way.

You need to bring your pre-existing values along with you when you enter public office. You're not likely to experience any significant applied learning of new ones by going to a weekend retreat.

I had no objection to the standing ovation the large audience gave Martin at the beginning and end of his mercifully brief luncheon remarks. In fact, there was something nobly egalitarian about a respectful demonstration, even perfunctory and tepid, for an office that, as its main duties, is charged with keeping the Capitol maintained and the Capitol lawn mowed.

Here, then, are my recommended values for the secretary of state, offered for a $54,000 discount: Evenly cut grass looks best. Precision lawn edging is good. Marble looks exquisite when expertly cleaned.

The panel of legislators I moderated immediately after lunch wasn't much more scintillating than Martin had been, or didn't seem so at the time. But then I kept discovering worthy comments as I remembered and reconsidered the discussion.

House Speaker Robert Moore, while not compelling as a public communicator, is passionate about developing geo-tourism to try to save his beloved Delta. He's also passionate about building good roads between dying towns to try to bring jobs.

He said a couple of profoundly truthful things, one being that, in the Delta, they don't covet business tax cuts to save or restore manufacturing jobs because there never were many manufacturing jobs there in the first place.

Dozing audience members perhaps missed state Sen. Jack Crumbly's poignant lamentation at the panel discussion's 90-minute mark over the 10-year difference in the life expectancy for a child born in Phillips County and one born in Benton County.

His point, a good one, is that our panel discussion of Medicaid should not center solely on those rising costs and how to reduce them, but on how Medicaid is the very lifeblood, indeed the only chance for a healthful start, for far too many of our state's children.

The legislative panel following ours, moderated by colleague Doug Thompson of those Northwest Arkansas papers, was described as more lively. Having fled the haunting echoes of my own panel, I wasn't there to behold for myself the scaling of this subterranean bar.

One advantage was that Sen. Gilbert Baker of Conway — like him or not, and I do and you might not — was on that second panel, and he has some energy.

He expended a little of that energy before lunch charting for me on scratch paper how the Republicans were going to gain three seats or more in the next election and seize outright control of the state Senate.

He seemed to think legislative redistricting, at least on the 35-seat Senate side, would not be a matter of dramatic altering.

He wondered how I might deal with GOP control.

Actually, I tend to find the current crop of state Republicans more personable and personally enjoyable than the Democrats, with a few exceptions, of course, though I've said quite enough already about Mark Martin.

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