Friday, June 20, 2014

EDITORIAL >> John Miller: A little giant

If you needed an icon to demonstrate the worth of seniority and tenure in legislative bodies, you would pick state Rep. John E. Miller of Melbourne.

Miller, who died Wednesday at the age of 85, had a breadth of knowledge and influence that has not been achieved since 1998, when the state’s term-limits law ended his 40-year career in the legislature. He is not apt to ever be rivaled again, and the public is not well served by that reality. A person now can serve no more than six years in the House during his or her lifespan.

When he was elected from the rural mountain district in 1958, Miller set out to understand everything about state government and the municipal, county and school governments that were the state’s subdivisions.

Unlike most lawmakers, who spend a few weeks a year at Little Rock when the legislature or its interim committees are meeting, Miller immersed himself in the government. It would, in time, mean incalculable millions of dollars in savings for the taxpayers and a more efficient government. He helped develop the uniform classification system for state employees that replaced the helter-skelter system where every government agency and its constituency fought for staffing and pay levels for the agency. A secretary in one agency might be paid triple the salary of a secretary in another.

Miller would soon become the most knowledgeable man on the Budget Committee, where he served nearly all his 40 years. He scanned every appropriation for waste or inefficiency, and when he said the Miscellaneous Tax Division of the Department of Finance Administration needed no more than one Accountant I, the committee always went along with him, no matter if the governor’s budget called for three and the director said he needed them.

He chaired the Revenue and Tax Committee and no tax passed without his imprimatur for most of the 40 years. He believed the state was wasting millions of dollars renting space all over Pulaski County for state agencies and that people who needed to see the government about a problem should find it at the Capitol. He finally got the Big Mac completed, which housed major government offices on the Capitol grounds.

John Miller was known as quaint and something of a prude. He didn’t drink, smoke, curse or party. For that matter, he didn’t tolerate lewd displays on government property, once complaining loudly in the Legislative Council about bared breasts and “nekkid women” in paintings at an exhibition of Arkansas artists in the Capitol rotunda. The newspapers ridiculed Miller, but the secretary of state quietly had the art taken down and stuck in a broom closet.

When Gov. Winthrop Rockefeller complained about legislative obstreperousness in 1968 and remarked in the earshot of reporters, “I’ll be glad when those bastards go home,” Miller took the floor of the House to defend his beloved mother against the slur from the state’s chief executive and sobbed. Rockefeller was stunned but realized that while from others it would be a political stunt, John Miller was genuinely hurt by the name-calling.

But he was not a Jason Rapert. He was genial with every legislator, lobbyist or constituent, never uttering a cross or disrespectful word. As much as his knowledge and skill, that might account for his outsized influence in the legislative halls. No one in the legislature comes close to having such knowledge and respect and no one will. You don’t earn it in a few weeks.