- Associated Press - Sunday, January 4, 2015

LITTLE ROCK, Ark. (AP) - Arkansas Gov. Mike Beebe successfully pushed for nearly eliminating the state’s tax on groceries over the past eight years, helped convince a Republican-led Legislature to embrace a key part of the president’s health care law and enjoys an approval rating that’s barely dipped below 70 percent since he took office in 2007.

But the two-term Democrat admits that the legacy he hopes to leave after more than three decades in elected office is much more nebulous. It’s trying to change the attitude of a poverty-stricken Southern state where “Thank God for Mississippi” is a familiar catchphrase.

“There are a lot of specific things that I’m proud of, but as I’ve said before, if you want to talk about a legacy I hope we’ve created in the minds of a majority of our people … a sense of what I call swagger, but you can call it whatever you want to call it,” Beebe told The Associated Press in an interview in his office last week. “The self confidence that we can compete with just about anybody on just about any level.”

The 68-year-old governor is leaving office next week due to term limits, handing the reins of the state to one-time rival and former congressman Asa Hutchinson, a Republican. Beebe, who had served 20 years in the state Senate and another four as attorney general, defeated Hutchinson in the 2006 governor’s race.

Hutchinson is succeeding Beebe after a November election where Republicans routed Democrats in statewide, congressional and legislative matchups up and down the ballot. Beebe says his decision to not run for office again has nothing to do with how much the state’s politics has changed in recent years.

“Politics has not changed for me,” Beebe said. “My relationship with the people I think is as strong today as it’s ever been.”

After running on a campaign pledge to “under-promise and over-deliver,” Beebe took office vowing to focus on education and economic development in a state that remained under the shadow of a long-running school funding case. That case ended in 2007, shortly after Beebe and lawmakers agreed to boost funding for the state’s classrooms - including setting aside half of the state’s $1 billion surplus to repair crumbling school buildings.

Beebe praised the state’s education progress since then, but says he worries about whether the state Supreme Court will undo some of the reforms enacted in response to the school funding case. He cites the court’s 2012 decision allowing districts that collect more in property taxes than state-mandated school funding levels to keep the money

“The biggest threat to backsliding from quality and equitable high standards education is the Arkansas Supreme Court,” Beebe said. “They’ve already demonstrated in one case they’re perfectly willing to forget the lessons learned, and forget their own precedent and their own interpretation.”

The 2007 session marked the beginning of a series of legislative victories for Beebe, who since taking office has successfully pushed through cutting the state’s grocery tax from 6 percent to 1.5 percent. Lawmakers in 2013 approved cutting the tax to 1/8 percent, a reduction that will be triggered by a drop in the state’s bond obligations and desegregation payments to Little Rock-area schools.

Beebe’s other legislative victories have also included increasing the state’s tobacco tax to create a statewide trauma system and increasing the severance tax on natural gas to pay for road improvements.

But his most high-profile legislative victory is the one that remains in a precarious position - the state’s compromise Medicaid expansion. Beebe and a group of Republican lawmakers teamed up to create the “private option,” which uses federal funds to purchase private insurance for the poor. Beebe said he remains cautiously optimistic lawmakers will continue the program, despite several plan opponents being elected to the Legislature. Hutchinson has said he won’t announce whether he’ll back its reauthorization until later this month.

Beebe will be watching from afar, still not quite sure what he’ll do. The outgoing governor says he’s looking at serving on some boards and possibly teaching a college course or two, but has ruled out practicing law or lobbying as the next step.

“Having been on the end that gets lobbied, it would be difficult for me to turn around and be on the other end that does the lobbying,” he said. “My personality isn’t suited for that.”

___

Follow Andrew DeMillo on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ademillo

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide