Friday, October 08, 2010

EDITORIAL >>Limiting state cars

Is Mike Beebe a good governor or a just a good politician, or is there a difference? He turns every controversy into a good-government lesson.

Beebe demonstrated his deft touch in the great state-car controversy. The Arkansas Democrat- Gazette’s summerlong reporting on the extensive use and abuse of government vehicles turned an old, old policy issue into a raging controversy. Did far too many government employees enjoy the use of a state car when it was not essential to their job and, if so, who was responsible? Executive cars are common in the business world, but when the taxpayers supply them, we invoke a higher standard.

Republicans, notably Beebe’s opponent Jim Keet, saw an opening and suggested that it was a Democratic scandal since the state constitutional officers are Democrats at the moment. They filed a lawsuit to make the five state constitutional officers who have state cars give them up because they amounted to income, putting them over the salary limits for their job. The suit had nothing to do with the issue of overuse of government vehicles for nongovernmental purposes. It was just a political gimmick.

Good questions, Beebe said of the issues raised by the newspaper’s reporting. Let’s find out. He ordered a systematic review of the vehicle policies of every agency of government, including all those that are not under his supervision, including the state Game and Fish Commission, Highway Department, the lottery and colleges and universities. He wanted it now, not next year.

When it was completed last week, Beebe concluded that far too many workers and officials commuted to their jobs in state-owned cars when it was not essential. They were just going to their offices to work for the day, not into the field for inspections, for law enforcement or for other duties that took them away from the offices.

Everyone’s assignment of a state car would be suspended on Nov. 1 and everyone would have to apply afresh for a car and justify its assignment. A number of officials, starting with the director of the big department that runs the state’s finances and conducted the study, surrendered their cars last week.

Beebe noted that he could not force the Game and Fish Commission and the colleges to follow the new rules, but he genuinely hoped they would. He said it appeared to him that they abused the system.

The Game and Fish Commission the next day adopted a policy that it said would reduce its fleet by a fourth. Game and Fish, which got a huge source of funding in 1998, when voters amended the Constitution to levy a sales tax dedicated to the wildlife agency and state parks, has 658 cars but only 613 employees. It has been giving many office workers a new car to drive to and from work. That practice will be ended.

Beebe offered no excuses and claimed no credit. The truth of the matter is, he said, the economizing on state cars needed to be done.

“Sometimes it takes the media,” he said. “Some-times it takes the public. Sometimes it takes the press to focus the light on things in a fashion that causes things to move.”

This is the third time in our memory that the state has had a big vehicle shrinkage. When Dale Bumpers became governor in 1971, he was astonished by the number of government cars around the government grounds. He thought they were also too big and wasted too much fuel. He issued a new policy, which reduced the number of cars and had agencies buying smaller and more fuel-efficient vehicles.

A dozen years later, Bill Clinton adopted a tough vehicle policy in his second term. But agencies became lax again in the 1990s, and as the energy crisis subsided, the number and size of vehicles exploded.

The lesson may be that we should have an automatic review every five years or so.