Bill Halter may or may not win the Democratic nomination to be the next governor of Arkansas, but the central idea in his campaign should be a subject for major debate in the 2014 gubernatorial election.
Halter calls his idea "The Arkansas Promise," obviously modeled after "The El Dorado Promise" and other programs designed to help young people obtain a college education. The difference is that Halter believes the state should make the guarantee.
"Simply stated, if you go to high school in Arkansas, qualify for a lottery scholarship, maintain a 2.5 GPA and plan to attend college in the state, we promise to pay your college tuition," the former lieutenant governor says in a letter on his campaign website. "The overall scholarship level would be set at the tuition level of the highest cost four-year public university in Arkansas."
Halter was the primary author and advocate of the Arkansas Scholarship Lottery, which since its inception in 2009 has funded almost 100,000 scholarships worth some $300 million. Setting aside the issue of whether gambling should pay for such things, that’s much more than the state had been doing.
Now Halter wants to build on the program. His Arkansas Promise would combine the Lottery Scholarship program with federal grant aid, philanthropic support and additional Arkansas scholarship funds — all without additional taxes.
That last source is the most controversial. Halter estimates that an additional $50 million to $75 million would be needed to fund the program fully. The math on that is a bit difficult, but the basis apparently would be the amount of tuition and fees to attend the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville, currently about $7,500.
One likely Democratic opponent, former 4th District Congressman Mike Ross, is among the doubters.
"Money doesn’t grow on trees, and this isn’t Washington. We can’t print money, and we can’t spend more than we take in," Ross told an Arkansas News Bureau reporter at the Delta Grassroots Caucus Conference in Little Rock last week. "… he says he’s not going to cut teacher pay and he’s not going to raise taxes, so you all are talking to the wrong guy. He’s the one that needs to show you all the math."
Ross pointed out that the Arkansas General Assembly recently cut taxes by $140 million over the next three years.
That’s exactly why the issue of helping more young Arkansans to get a college education should be a major issue. The Legislature did next to nothing this year toward that end.
While our lawmakers spent a lot of time and energy on passing a bill to allow colleges and universities to open their campuses to people carrying concealed weapons, the only significant legislation dealing with higher education was a bill dropping the amounts students will receive from lottery scholarships.
That’s because lottery revenue has been falling short of projections. While it was expected to raise at least $100 million a year for scholarships, that number will be closer to $90 million for fiscal 2013.
Therefore, the Legislature adopted a tiered approach to awarding lottery scholarships for attending four-year colleges — giving $2,000 to freshmen, $3,000 to sophomores, $4,000 to juniors and $5,000 to seniors. Those attending two-year colleges will get $2,000 each year.
The original grants were $2,500 for students attending two-year colleges and $5,000 for those attending four-year institutions.
That’s quite a difference and will put a much greater burden on students from middle-class and lower-class families.
Instead of cutting taxes, the Legislature could have channeled that $140 million or so into college scholarships. If Halter’s numbers are right, that might have been almost enough to fund the Arkansas Promise.
The reason certainly isn’t to make Halter or any other politician look good. But investing in the education of our young people will ensure greater economic prosperity for Arkansas in the future. Cutting taxes, in theory, gives "job creators" more money to grow the economy and consumers more money to spend. Unfortunately, it does nothing to help attract the kind of high-tech, high-wage jobs we’d like to have.
And a poorly educated populace can’t fill such jobs anyway.
Arkansas ranks 49th out of 50 states in the percentage of our work force with college degrees — behind Mississippi and ahead of only West Virginia.
We need to produce more college graduates, and it’s shameful to think that the only meaningful source of financial aid for that mission is the lottery.
Postscript to last week’s column: Act 746, which is being interpreted by some as allowing open carry of handguns in Arkansas, was passed by the state House of Representatives by a vote of 82-1. I credited Rep. John Baine, D-El Dorado, as perhaps "smelling a rat" because he was the only lawmaker voting against the bill.
However, he wrote to say that he voted no because the bill imposed restrictions on a "journey" as being within a county. "My home of Union County can have individuals drive over 40 miles, within the county, to hunt at the Felsenthal National Refuge. I think that actually restricts the rights of gun owners," he said.
So, never mind.
Roy Ockert is editor emeritus of The Jonesboro Sun. He may be reached by e-mail at email@example.com.