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In 2011, I was in my first full year as president of Arkansas' Colleges and Universities, the organization that represents the state's four-year private institutions of higher education. I had experienced a problem getting legislators to take higher education seriously and was frustrated with their lack of interest in the thing that could finally increase the per capita income of Arkansans.

On June 12 of that year, I ran across an article in The New York Times that noted: "About one in four of the nearly 7,400 elected representatives across the country do not possess a four-year college degree, according to a report released by The Chronicle of Higher Education in Washington. That compares with 6 percent of members of Congress, and 72 percent of adults nationwide, said the report, which is based primarily on the officials' self-reported biographical information."

I only had to get to the second paragraph to discover what I already suspected: Arkansas had the least educated legislative body in the country, with 25 percent of its legislators having no college experience at all, triple the national average of 8.7 percent. Arkansas was followed by legislatures in Montana at 20 percent, Kansas at 16 percent, South Dakota at 16 percent and Arizona at 16 percent.

During that year's regular session, I contacted a House member who had introduced a bill that would have been detrimental to the 11 schools I represented. When I told him of my concerns (this was a man sponsoring a bill dealing with higher ed, mind you), his reply was: "I didn't know we had any private colleges in Arkansas."

I immediately sent an email to the 11 college presidents for whom I worked that read: "We need to go back to Higher Education 101 with some of these legislators."

Let me make one thing clear: It's not necessary to have a college degree to be an effective legislator. I've been reading about, watching and even lobbying the Legislature for half a century and can tell you that some of the best legislators I've known never attended college. They had an ability to deal with people, an understanding of the issues that are important to the state and an awareness of how the process works.

Here's what I am saying: It's hard to convince those who haven't had college experience in their own lives of its necessity in the knowledge-based economy of the 21st century.

That's where a governor can enter the equation. According to public opinion polls, Gov. Asa Hutchinson is among the most popular governors in the country. It's time for him to put that political capital to work during his last regular session (Hutchinson will still be in office for the 2022 budget session). This legislative session will define his legacy as governor.

At the end of the 2019 session, normally modest Hutchinson declared it to be the greatest session of all time. It was far from that, especially considering that much of the focus was on feeding the always insatiable appetite of the Arkansas Department of Transportation. One of these years legislators in this state will focus on human capital rather than asphalt.

Governors are always relieved when regular sessions end, so I guess Hutchinson was just letting his inner Donald Trump out for a day with this uncharacteristic hyperbole.

The 2021 session could actually be among the greatest of all time--even in the middle of a pandemic --if Hutchinson will provide leadership in the right areas. It won't be an easy task. The overall quality of the Legislature has declined since 2011 with a growing number of members focused on hot-button issues that get them "likes" on social media even though they have nothing to do with state government. They prefer to spend time playing the role of demagogue on Twitter and Facebook rather than reading, studying and asking the tough questions.

Corruption also ran rampant in the legislative branch in the years after 2011. If I thought I was frustrated then, I can't imagine how I would feel now in my old job.

For this to be a legacy-defining session, Hutchinson must have a budget that will set the stage for per capita income to go up. We've yet to see the results of the 2020 census, but in the 2010 census there was only one state (West Virginia) that had a lower percentage of its residents with a bachelor's degree or higher.

Per capita income won't change until that statistic changes. It's that simple. For too long, Arkansas legislators have starved state colleges and universities.

In November 2002, Gov. Mike Huckabee had just been elected to his final term. I was serving on Huckabee's staff and was with him at the Governor's Mansion when word came down that the Arkansas Supreme Court had ruled that the state's system of funding public education was unconstitutional. Huckabee's final four years in office were focused on crafting a response to what was known as the Lake View ruling, and K-12 education improved immensely as a result. That effort defined his legacy.

The modern economy demands that we now give that same kind of attention to higher education. We're about to see if Hutchinson can provide the necessary leadership.

This isn't an either/or debate between workforce training and bachelor's degrees. We need more people with associate's degrees from our 22 community colleges. But we also desperately need more people with bachelor's degrees, master's degrees and doctorates from four-year colleges and universities. The days of focusing solely on K-12 education are over. It must be K-14 and K-16. That's true even for the manufacturing sector.

An analysis last year of data by The Wall Street Journal found that "college-educated workers are taking over the American factory floor. New manufacturing jobs that require more advanced skills are driving up the education level of factory workers who in past generations could get by without higher education. Within the next three years, American manufacturers are, for the first time, on track to employ more college graduates than workers with a high school education or less."

With an intense focus on higher education, Arkansas will be able to keep more of its young people in the state while also attracting talented workers from elsewhere. This state is positioned to do well after the pandemic if our legislators will just focus on the right things. Again, that's where the leadership of a popular governor must come into play.

In addition to getting them to concentrate on higher education, Hutchinson must somehow convince legislators that the biggest factors when highly educated young people move to a state are quality-of-life amenities. Arkansas has natural beauty and abundant opportunities for outdoor recreation, but we must protect and, when possible, enhance those assets.

That means, for example, that legislators must follow Hutchinson's recommendation and finally pass a permanent ban on commercial hog farms in the Buffalo River watershed rather than blindly following the edicts of the Arkansas Farm Bureau Federation.

It means that legislators must appropriate general revenues for programs that will enhance the state. Earlier this year, I proposed a program that for $20 million a year in seed money would activate the private sector and thousands of volunteers.

The funds would be distributed this way: $5 million for the Arkansas Game & Fish Commission's Stream Teams program to keep waterways clean, $5 million to the Keep Arkansas Beautiful Commission to keep roadsides clean, $5 million to the AGFC for its quail habitat restoration efforts and $5 million to the Arkansas Forestry Commission to plant hardwoods in the Delta.

It's time to go big, Governor. If you prioritize the right things, this really could be one of the greatest sessions of all time, not just public relations spin.

--ā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“vā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“ā€“--

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

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