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The Arkansas Legislature is back in town. You can break out the stale old jokes about hiding the women and children.

This year's fiscal session comes at a time when the legislative branch is roiled by federal investigations into the General Improvement Fund. Based on the work of the FBI and the continued investigative reporting of this newspaper, expect to hear more about this scandal. While the misuse of GIF funds is the biggest cloud over that branch of government, there's another development that gives me pause after decades of following the Legislature.

There seems to be a growing anti-intellectual strain that manifested itself earlier this month in Sen. Bart Hester's now-infamous tweet. Hester is a Republican from Cave Springs (does that qualify him as a caveman?). After seeing a billboard for the University of Arkansas at Little Rock that included the image of a dancer, the speak-now-and-think-later senator from northwest Arkansas posted this message on Twitter: "Why higher ed does NOT need increase (sic) funding. They lease a sign to encourage computer science degrees or math teachers? No they push for dance majors. Lots of hardworking Arkansans subsidizing this! Not OK."

The fact that Hester weighed in on what "hardworking Arkansans" are "subsidizing" was rich in irony. That's because he's one of the leading abusers of GIF money, having steered $50,000 in taxpayer funds to something called Eagle Ministries. The organization claimed that it held couples' retreats in Branson, Mo. Hester reportedly attended church with the couple who ran Eagle Ministries, which never provided the state with invoices or receipts. When asked about the money, an unrepentant Hester replied: "My only regret is I could not add an additional zero to that grant."

The irony likely was lost on Hester. Because of the wide coverage his tweet received (it was the most-read story on this newspaper's website that week), Hester is now the poster boy for the growing know-nothing wing of the Legislature.

Those of a certain age can remember when veteran senators, many of whom were lawyers, would take overheated proposals from the House and quietly allow them to die in the upper chamber. When I was the political editor of this newspaper in 1993, Mike Trimble wrote a line that was so good that I don't even remember how the sentence ended. Here's how it started: "In the House, where the shallow end runs the length of the pool . . ." To see rhetoric such as that spouted by Hester now coming from the Senate is reason for concern.

I'll be the first to tell you that there must be more efficiency and less administrative spending in higher education. Gov. Asa Hutchinson's focus on graduation rates is also a welcome development. But please note that the percentage of their budgets that state colleges and universities receive from the state has been falling for years. It's disheartening for those who know that Arkansas' low per-capita income won't significantly increase until the number of Arkansans with college degrees increases.

It's popular these days for people to point to stories such as the five-month-old article that a friend posted on social media last week. It was headlined: "After decades of pushing bachelor's degrees, U.S. needs more tradespeople." These stories are written from a national perspective. Those who read them often fail to understand that Arkansas ranked next to last nationally in the 2010 census (ahead of only West Virginia) in the percentage of adults with bachelor's degrees or higher. In Arkansas, it's not an either/or proposition.

It's both. Yes, we need more Arkansans earning vocational certificates. We also need more graduates from four-year colleges and universities. Yes, we need more plumbers and welders. In a knowledge-based economy, we also need more people with bachelor's and advanced degrees.

I've watched as legislators have used such stories as an excuse to cut funding for four-year institutions of higher education. That's economic suicide in the 21st century. For decades, economic development in this poor state was all about more jobs: Go land that shoe factory or cut-and-sew operation in an attempt to replace the jobs being lost on the farm due to mechanization.

Never mind the fact that these were low-paying jobs (target areas were the heavily unionized states in the upper Midwest and the Northeast; factory owners could pay far less in Arkansas for the same amount of work). At least they were jobs, we told ourselves.

That dynamic has changed. Arkansas has low unemployment rates. We don't need more jobs as much as we need better-paying jobs. Economic development isn't as much about attracting the big factory as it is about attracting educated people.

And here's the rub: Educated people like to be around other educated people. A critical mass develops. Research done at universities (yes, the same ones whose percentage of state funding has been falling for years) is taken by startup companies and monetized. These companies hire even more smart people. Some of those people then start their own companies. You don't have to go far--Austin or Nashville will do--to see this cycle occur.

We're so close in parts of Arkansas to achieving something big. Northwest Arkansas is close to being among the most desirable places to live in the country. Downtown Little Rock needs just a few more pieces to become a really attractive place for talented entrepreneurs to live and work.

Too often in our state's history, we've barely missed the mark. We seceded after having come close to remaining in the Union. We blocked black students at Little Rock Central High School even though early attempts at integration had gone smoothly in several small Arkansas cities, making us a beacon of hope in the South. We didn't do what was necessary to keep a young company called Federal Express in its original home of Little Rock. We're close once more.

That's what's so discouraging about messages such as the one Hester sent. We're setting ourselves up to miss the mark yet again. As a native Arkansan, it makes me want to cry.

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Rex Nelson is a senior editor at the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette.

Editorial on 02/18/2018

Print Headline: Missing the mark

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Comments

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  • DoubleBlind
    February 18, 2018 at 7:51 a.m.

    Amen. The Ledge is stinking with knuckle dragging preachers and crooks like Hester, Rapert and too many others to name. They aren’t worth the burlap bags in which they should be drowned. I’d settle for them all to be sent packing in the next election.

  • DoubleBlind
    February 18, 2018 at 8:30 a.m.

    There is an excellent article in The Guardian called ‘Under Trump, America's religious right is rewriting its code of ethics.’ I won’t cut/paste here. I do urge everyone, esp evangelitard legislators to read it. It will be like looking in the mirror for them.

  • deitrablackwell
    February 18, 2018 at 11:51 a.m.

    Thank you Rex! As a person who has several members of her family who have earned art degrees, I too am tired of people denigrating the arts as worthy of study. One member is a college associate professor in ceramics; another is the designer on the product development team at a Fortune 500 company. A third has just graduated with a BFA in Furniture Design, works for a local custom furniture company, and is on his way to graduate school in Art. You can see his first conference table in the Windgate Center for Art and Design. All three are graduates of the UA Little Rock Department of Art and Design. After a career in Music, full time and part time, I have opened my own jewelry business after taking metalsmithing and other art classes. There are myriad career opportunities for people with degrees in the arts.

    May I also add that while Bart Hester belittles dance, he was perfectly happy to have his own college degree funded by a baseball scholarship, apparently subsidized by we hard working tax payers. Baseball is a much narrower professional field than the arts, and thus with Bart Hester’s logic, a far more frivolous endeavor.

    Please continue to lift up professions associated with preparation provided by the arts.

  • Wingers
    February 18, 2018 at 11:59 a.m.

    Excellent opine Rex!! Unfortunately too many in the new Republican Party don’t really get it!! An educated citizenry is one that has empowered itself to succeed.

    And we have way too many in the Ledge thinking that OUR MONEY is their money to freely hand out! Now that a few have been caught with the proverbial hand in the cookie jar maybe we can get back to some honesty in government.

  • KnuckleBall
    February 18, 2018 at 3:44 p.m.

    Good Article Rex, This little state has produced some very good companies over the last 60 years. Major players in the markets around the globe but to listen the people in the legislature we are spending to much money on education, our state restricts people from making a living from having to have a license to be a tradesman (plumbing, electrical and hvac) plumbing and electrical licenses require 4 years of an apprenticeship school. The current group wants to do away with those licenses and open our borders to people from other states that don't have the same requirements as the Great State of Arkansas. The legislature has been trying to do away with those programs for the last 5 years. If people don't speak up this time next year when they meet again, those tradesmen license may go away..!!!!

  • RBear
    February 18, 2018 at 3:54 p.m.

    Great column Rex and you hit at the issue we face in the state. There can be a balance of education, but our lawmakers have been opting against higher education funding. Our governor is advocating a tax cut of $180 million that could have gone to investment in education. I can tell you that as one who fits in that income bracket I would prefer the state keep that cut and invest it in future minds. The amount saved is minuscule in my budget, but the lack of talent in our state is monumental in business need.
    ...
    With regards to Hester, he is one of the deplorables of the Ledge because of the GIF grant. Giving to someone in his church so they can do retreats in Branson, MO? How is that investing in our state? Hester is one of those who has been a blemish on the advancement of our state, with his anti-LGBT legislation definitely putting the state in the negative with corporations. They want safe places for their employees and when legislation like that exists, their employees don't feel safety in their communities.

  • Razrbak
    February 19, 2018 at 8:23 a.m.

    Revitalization in downtown Little Rock and development of swanky digs for white folk will be an interesting factor in the LRBOD Ward 1 race.

  • Boathouse
    February 19, 2018 at 4 p.m.

    At one time in the not too distant past Arkansas was home to a state senator whose mantra when referring to females was “keep them home, barefoot and pregnant “....someone needs to check Hester’s DNA; he is bound to have come out from under the same rock!!

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