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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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