Monday, September 20, 2010

EDITORIAL >>AG&FC run amok

A cartoon by the late great George Fisher in the Arkansas Gazette put the state Game and Fish Commission atop Mount Olympus and observed that the commission answered only to God. The wildlife agency was installed in the state Constitution nearly 70 years ago on the theory that it needed protecting from the governor and the other conniving politicians, those in the state legislature. Administrators and the appointed commissioners who ran the agency enjoyed unparalleled power that was largely unchecked by either the executive or legislative branches.

If Fisher could only see them now!

The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette published more of its detailed research on state government vehicles Thursday and the abuse thereof. It showed that the Game and Fish Commission had 613 employees but 658 vehicles, a little more than one vehicle per worker. The agency needs more vehicles than many agencies (all the agencies have more than they need) because there is hauling and construction work to be done at the fisheries and the wildlife wardens need vehicles. But more than one per employee?

The agency is a poster child for a government run amok — a government that has run amok for many years. State cars were a perk for underpaid state employees. The only trouble was that the cars were supplied to the highest-paid people in every department and at the colleges, not the drudges who did the work.

But Game and Fish is a special case. It is worse for two reasons. The first is that, like the state Highway Commission, it enjoys unusual independence from the ordinary strictures of government. Voters enshrined both agencies and their governing commissions in the state Constitution, Game and Fish in 1944 and the Highway Commission in 1952, on the theory that if the governor and legislature couldn’t touch them, their decisions would be made for the good of the people and not to satisfy politicians.

The second was the misguided constitutional amendment ratified by the voters in 1998 that levied a one-seventh of a percent sales tax and divided the revenues forever between Game and Fish and the state Parks Department. Whether their needs are lesser or greater than the rest of the government, those agencies get that money automatically every year — it’s about $60 million a year — and Game and Fish spends its money more or less as it pleases.

Governor Mike Huckabee, who liked to fish, campaigned for the tax. You may remember when he made his famous trip down the Arkansas River on his bass boat at the head of a flotilla, stopping at every city to hold a media event in which he urged people to go to the polls and vote for the tax. They did. He boasted that it was his tax — that is, until he ran for president and claimed to have been the tax-cuttingest governor in history. When he was asked about the conservation sales tax, he said, oh that was the voters, not me.

With another $25 million to $30 million flowing into the agency, it had to spend it somewhere. Its operating budget jumped from about $30 million in 1998 to $57 million in the next eight years. It raised the number of employees by a fifth. The agency already carried as many vehicles as employees, but the vehicles became bigger and newer. The top dogs in the agency, according to the Democrat-Gazette, have 2010 or 2009 model cars.

One commissioner interviewed by the paper said he cast the only vote several months ago against buying 50 new cars. He did not have any objection, he said, except “one or two” of the vehicles they were replacing were pretty new. Who wants to drive a two-year-old car?

But the vehicle policies at Game and Fish are not going to change. The governor can’t change them. The legislature can’t change them. A newspaper article, editorials and letters to the editor aren’t going to change them. They have that money to spend, and you wouldn’t expect them to leave it in the treasury, would you? The tax and its use are spelled out in the state Constitution. The commissioners cannot be removed or moved.

Only the voters can change the Constitution. Mike Huckabee made it sound so wonderful on his voyage down the Arkansas. Next time someone wants to put a tax of any kind in the Constitution, let’s pay more attention.