Beebe challenges, accomplishments

by The City Wire staff ([email protected]) 48 views 

When asked in recent interviews about my past eight years as Governor, I've said repeatedly that it's been quite a ride. When you review the challenges we've faced and the strides we've made, it’s easy to see why.

When I took office in 2007, Arkansas had a strong economy and a surplus of nearly a billion dollars. Working with the General Assembly, we cut the grocery tax in half, saved homeowners money on property taxes and added funding for pre-K, K-12 and higher education. We set aside half of the surplus to build and renovate schools, dedicated some monies to highways, and established the Quick Action Closing Fund, a valuable tool for economic development. The Arkansas Supreme Court ended the Lake View School District Case, freeing our schools from Court supervision. We were off to a good start.

In 2008, amid the surge of business surrounding the Fayetteville Shale, I called a special session to establish a fair tax rate on the severance of natural gas. With a three-fourths majority vote, we generated tens of millions of dollars annually for roads, particularly in the Shale area, and for increased environmental monitoring. As the year wound down, we watched as the national economy began to suffer the consequences of dubious banking practices and failing companies.

During the 2009 session, another three-quarters supermajority vote from the legislature increased our state's tobacco tax, allowing for the establishment of a statewide trauma system and bolstering an array of health-care programs. We were again able to cut the grocery tax, this time with a smaller reduction, even while daunting economic times loomed.

The next few years were spent grappling with our nation's biggest economic downturn since the Great Depression. American manufacturing took a big hit as companies outsourced jobs. Even as Arkansas announced $2.5 billion dollars in economic investments and 10,000 new jobs over the next two years, too many Arkansas families felt the pain of layoffs as companies closed down or left the country. Still, because of our conservative approach to budgeting, Arkansas never operated at a deficit at any point during the Great Recession. Only four states can make that claim, and, of those four, ours has the largest population.

In 2011, we worked to curb rising criminal-justice costs in Arkansas. We reformed sentencing for minor crimes, particularly non-violent drug crimes, and made changes to our parole-and-probation systems. While jail overcrowding dropped significantly for a while, concerns about parole prompted a sudden reversal to that trend two years later. Jail overcrowding remains a critical problem for our State.

I ran for Governor as a champion of education and economic development, but health care became the dominant issue of my administration's second term. We have worked tirelessly on our payment-improvement initiative, a national model in moving away from an unsustainable fee-for-service system. This has shown impressive results for Medicaid and private-insurance patients, in both lower costs and better outcomes. I expect that you'll see this idea gain momentum throughout the country in the years to come.

And then, in 2013, the Arkansas Private Option arrived. A bipartisan plan to use federal funds to purchase private insurance policies for low-income, working Arkansans became a national trendsetter. One year in, more than 200,000 more Arkansans now have insurance. Even the most strident opponents of any form of Medicaid expansion, including Texas and Wyoming, are now realizing the logic and arithmetic of finding a similar solution to Arkansas's. We received our federal waiver this week for the Private Option's second year, and I hope support for the program continues.

We have accomplished a great deal during the past eight years, and also faced challenges few could have predicted. We have made giant strides, even when compared to the rest of the country, in education, per-capita income, and providing health insurance for our people. There will always be more to accomplish, but there is much for Arkansans to be proud of, and many reasons to hold our heads high when we speak of our State.