Tuesday, December 20, 2011

EDITORIAL >> Commission ignores deal

Of George Fisher’s cartoons celebrating the arrogance of the Arkansas Highway Commission, our favorite pictured the commission’s mountaintop castle and redoubt with this caption in verse:

Here’s to the Highway Commission

That dabbles in cement and sod,

Where the Governor speaks only to the Commission,

And the Commission speaks only to God.

The five commissioners designated by the Constitution change in name but never in spirit. Last week, the commissioners reneged on a solemn agreement from last spring. Let’s repeat that. They made a promise and then broke it.

State Senator Jeremy Hutchinson had introduced a proposed constitutional amendment that would end the big agency’s constitutional status and subject it and its governing commission to the same rules as the rest of government. Among the many beefs with the commission, whose members serve 10-year terms, is that they tend to divide the state’s highway revenues pretty evenly among themselves for highway work in their regions, regardless of where the cars, people and traffic are. Camden, El Dorado and Pine Bluff get bypasses while Jacksonville, Sherwood and Cabot, to take three examples, are choking on cars.

The commission and its director negotiated an agreement. If Hutchinson would not put his amendment to a vote they would redraw the highway districts so that they were roughly equal in population, like congressional, legislative, city ward and school districts. The highway law—the Mack-Blackwell Amendment—was ratified by voters in 1952 and designated one commissioner from each of the state’s five congressional districts. Then the 1960 census reduced the state’s congressional districts to four.

But the Highway Department back then drew up 10 highway districts, with each of the five commissioners responsible for two of them. The department has come to call them “advocacy districts.” In fact, a good portion of highway revenues are distributed fairly equally among them, which obviously favors the rural parts of the state, south and east, that have been losing population for 60 years.

Legislators were satisfied, Hutchinson withdrew his amendment and the legislature adjourned. Last week, the commissioners agreed 5 to 0 that they were not going to do it. It was just too hard to draw such a map they could agree on, they said. A fifth grader with a map and a census chart could have done it an hour.

Madison Murphy, the El Dorado industrialist who chairs the commission, was not so sure that the money should simply follow the cars, as Gov. Beebe has suggested. Severely distressed parts of the state need help, too.

Murphy is right and there probably should not be a rigid formula for spending federal and state highway money, but the back scratching among five white men of immense power is not the best way to plot the state’s advancement.

And a deal is a deal. There will be repercussions from the commission’s faithlessness. Do not be surprised if the legislature in 2013 sets in motion a law to repeal the Mack-Blackwell Amendment, which was supposed to “take highways out of politics” but only made them subject to a more perverse kind.