Tuesday, July 20, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Nobody rides free

All’s almost well that ends almost well, as Shakespeare might have said about the rhubarb over state politicians’ personal use of government vehicles.

Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and state Treasurer Martha Shoffner made fools of themselves and no doubt will suffer some political consequences, but in the end they did what was right and apologized with unusual contrition. Even state Land Commissioner Mark Wilcox, whose chutzpah started the mess, seemed to be determined to finally do what was right.

It was an amazing spectacle — some of the state’s deftest politicians shooting themselves in both feet and uttering inanities that shocked their fondest supporters. In the end, it curbed a small abuse of the taxpayers.

For many years, the seven state constitutional officers — all except the current governor, Mike Beebe — have been provided a new car by the state for their personal use. It was one of the perks of offices that paid ridiculously small salaries — $10,000 for the governor, $6,000 for the attorney general, $2,500 for the lieutenant governor and $5,000 for the other four elected officials.

Those salaries were lifted in 1975, although they have remained among the lowest in the country and far below the salaries of their top aides, cabinet members and hundreds of other state employees. The free use of state cars continued.

An Arkansas Democrat-Gazette reporter back in May surveyed the seven officials on what they did with their state vehicles: how often they used them for personal travel, how they treated them for tax purposes, etc. Wilcox, who occupies the least of the offices, had not one but two state vehicles. One was kept at his farm for exclusively personal use. He refused to talk to the reporter about it and later fired the employee who supplied the information to the reporter.

One of the officials, Lt. Gov. Bill Halter, said he treated the state car and its expenses as income and paid federal and state taxes on it, as he believed federal and state law required.

That infuriated McDaniel, a political rival, who seemed to think that Halter had made him look bad by obeying the law. He denounced Halter for paying income taxes on the state’s gift and said it meant that Halter was violating the state ceiling on the lieutenant governor’s income.

The reaction was quick and merciless. McDaniel apologized for his silliness, begged Halter’s forgiveness and turned in the keys to his state car.

Shoffner was outraged at Gov. Beebe’s response. He had claimed the state car as income when he was attorney general and did not drive a state car as governor.

Like all previous governors for more than half a century, he is driven to work and to functions by a State Police security detail.

Shoffner, who seemed to think Beebe’s propriety made her look bad, ridiculed his use of “manservants” and said she was going to keep her state car and seemed to dare the IRS to audit her and make her pay.

All these people are Democrats.

By the weekend, Shoffner was apologizing to Beebe and the State Police. She and the other constitutional officers were either turning in their state cars, amending their tax returns to pay taxes on the benefits, reimbursing the state for their personal travel in government vehicles or all three.

The taxpayer benefits from this imbroglio may increase. Eugene Sayre, the illegal-exaction gadfly who has sued the state and local governments often and successfully for skirting tax laws, filed a lawsuit seeking to stop all state government officials and employees from using state vehicles for personal pursuits without reimbursing the state for the fuel and maintenance.

He contends that the free personal use of state property is an illegal exaction under the Constitution. He clearly is right. No one knows the extent of the abuse — some college presidents and other privileged officials have long enjoyed the use of state-supplied cars, a perk that is common in the corporate world — but it is apt to be considerable change.

It won’t be enough to salvage the state budget in hard times, but we will know that our government is a little leaner and cleaner.