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Now not time to build Beebe legacy

Posted: June 21, 2014 - 11:00am
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Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe is applauded by members of the Delta Grassroots Caucus in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, June 12, 2014. Beebe told the group he remains cautiously optimistic that Arkansas will keep its compromise Medicaid expansion alive next year despite the defeat of a legislator who helped design the program. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)  AP
AP
Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe is applauded by members of the Delta Grassroots Caucus in Little Rock, Ark., Thursday, June 12, 2014. Beebe told the group he remains cautiously optimistic that Arkansas will keep its compromise Medicaid expansion alive next year despite the defeat of a legislator who helped design the program. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)

LITTLE ROCK — While there’s a strong chance Arkansas legislators will return for one more special legislative session under Gov. Mike Beebe, there’s little chance he’ll use it for legacy-building.

One reason: The time for that has passed. If people haven’t formed an opinion of Beebe after his 7½ years in office, there’s little he could do within six months that would push them one way or another.

135 reasons: If there is one grand idea Beebe wants to push on legislators in a final get-together, there are 100 House members and 35 senators who have their own.

The governor isn’t interested in a free-for-all if or when legislators come back to Little Rock. Beebe prefers to not call special sessions unless he has some assurance that House and Senate leaders have already lined up enough votes to pass a package of bills.

Under the chambers’ rules, it takes a minimum of three days to introduce, read and pass bills through the House and Senate and deliver them to the governor’s desk. If Beebe wants to go far afield, there are legislators who would want to do the same, and risk a longer session.

Expect him to keep any special session call especially tight.

Most recently, legislators have been trying to determine the level of support for two bills that would prevent public school workers from seeing their insurance premiums jump by 35 percent this fall.

Beebe’s summons could also include the expansion of broadband internet service for schools and ways to address prison overcrowding, which has caused a backlog of inmates in local jails.

But there’s little the governor wants to do that hasn’t already been done.

When he ran for office in 2006, every Arkansas resident with a weekly $100 grocery bill also was forking over $6 to the state in sales taxes. Beebe decried the grocery tax as regressive, since poorer residents had to pay a larger portion of their income on staples like milk and bread, and made eliminating it a centerpiece of his campaign.

He won quick reductions, but the tax won’t be cut more deeply cut until after he leaves office. The framework is in place to eliminate nearly all of the tax, but the further cut is tied to Arkansas ending its extra payments to three Little Rock-area school districts to aid desegregation efforts.

Those payments to the school districts, which have totaled more than $1 billion since the late 1980s, are set to stop in 2018. Once that happens, Arkansans will stop paying state taxes on food, except for a one-eighth-cent tax approved by voters in 1998 to support conservation efforts.

The governor has succeeded in having much of his agenda passed over the past 7 ½ years — including a cigarette tax increase that helped pay to set up a statewide trauma system, a package of economic development initiatives he can use in last-minute negotiations to lure businesses and changing criminal sentencing laws.

“There are two types of legacies: What you wanted to do, and what you did with things that came up,” Beebe spokesman Matt DeCample said last week while discussing the governor’s eight years in office.

Until 2013, Beebe was able to work with a friendly Democratic legislature, but even in the past two years with Republicans directing work in both chambers, he successfully backed an expansion of the state Medicaid system that has Arkansas using federal dollars to buy private insurance for its poorer residents.

As he entered his final year in office, Beebe said in an interview with Andrew DeMillo of The Associated Press that the last 12 months in office shouldn’t be regarded as a “swan song.”

His tenure, he essentially said, shouldn’t be marked by last impressions: “I would hate to think we waited until the last session to start doing something I thought was important.”

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