By John Brummett
CONWAY - This showcase state Senate race in Conway is odd. These candidates, state Sen. Gilbert Baker and businessman Joe White, will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for, well, it's hard to say.
Baker thinks it's important that we have a two-party system and that he's the last line of defense against our not having one.
He keeps telling me that if the Democrats take his seat, then he just doesn't know what would become of the Republicans. He's actually contended that Democrats are out to get him because he's taken Republicanism all the way to the Pulaski County line.
It's like this is "Gilbert's Last Stand," an epic Western movie filmed on location at the Morgan exit.
Maybe he's right, because I can't figure otherwise what the deal is with White's Democratic challenge.
Joe is a good ol' Conway boy who's been in the car business and other enterprises. But he's a ponderous communicator and he doesn't seem to have any issue that inspires him.
My guess is that he has some Democratic friends and he let them talk him into providing the warm body for going against Baker because these friends simply would prefer that Baker not be the senator from Conway, his being a Republican and all.
Maybe they fear that Baker will aim higher after getting term-limited in four years, maybe Congress, though I doubt he has that hankering or that Second District incumbent Vic Snyder is losing sleep.
So I wrote the other day that there wasn't any issue or policy at stake in this over-hyped contest. Baker, ever the Pollyanna, tried to tell me that there was.
He says he's committed to taking all the remaining three cents off the grocery tax. He says Gov. Mike Beebe, who supports White, is fretting about the economy and talking about a second incremental reduction of only a penny or a fraction.
So there's your issue. Baker wants to go back to the Senate in January to cut the budget more than the governor may want at the very time we may be entering a deep recession that would erode state revenues while increasing human needs, such as for Medicaid.
You'd think Republicans would have learned from recent national and international financial events that taking in less while spending more and trying to live on fiscal vapor creates eventual mathematical complication.
What Beebe and legislators ought to do is hold on to the $250 million or so in surplus now amassing, meaning income in excess of approved spending levels. The governor and legislators should lock that money in a rainy day fund in case things get as bad as they might. Just this once, because global finance has collapsed, they ought to resist the urge to spend every taxpayer penny they can get their hands on.
You see, when the economy goes bad, state government gets hit from both sides. It loses revenue stream while its essential responsibilities increase. And state government can't run up a deficit like the federal government.
Without real cash for state government, sick poor people don't get medical help because federal Medicaid matches aren't met. Prisoners don't stay in prison very long. College tuition gets hiked up. The public schools must get theirs off the top, because that's in the state Constitution and case law and we sure don't want another lawsuit.
Anyway, curious as to what possible substance or significance I might discern, I drove to Conway the other afternoon for a debate between Baker and White put on by political science students at UCA. I found none.
On the issue of whether Conway ought to be wet or dry or, as it is now, "damp," meaning dry except for private club permits as approved by the Alcoholic Beverage Control board, both Baker and White came out forcefully for supporting and trusting the will of the people at the ballot box, either way.
Baker did tell me afterward that, if given the chance, he'd personally vote dry, even to end the dampness, but only prospectively, not retroactively. He wouldn't want to put any constituent out of business.
He's against booze in his dry county, you see, except for the amount they're already pouring, which, as it happens, he finds to be just right.
He'd grandfather in booze monopolies. And I thought Republicans were for markets and competition.
The whole thing is just weird.
John Brummett is a columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org; his telephone number is (501) 374-0699.