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Transforming Arkansas Government

Sunday, March 1, 1998

Can a citizens’ commission reform state government?
Arkansas serves as the testing ground

Arkansans are still smarting from the 1992 presidential campaign, when Republicans charged that the Razorback State displayed the inbred politics and bloated bureaucracy of a banana republic. And the stream of scandals keeps flowing: Since last spring, one state legislator has pleaded guilty to mail fraud, a handful of others have been caught in a scheme to create a $3-million grant program for their own profit, and still others are under an FBI investigation for improperly influencing state contracts for personal gain. When Governor Mike Huckabee set up a hotline for reporting fraud, 125 calls were received on the first day.

But after years of enduring jokes about Arkansas on late-night TV, a diverse group of dedicated citizens is seeking to remake the state government and, they hope, rescue Arkansas’s reputation. More than 200 Arkansans have formed a citizens’ commission, dubbed the Murphy Commission after its chairman, Madison Murphy, the charismatic chief of Murphy Oil Corp. "We were sick of Arkansas-bashing," explains Murphy. "It is clear that Arkansas government needs to be transformed, but government is not capable of reforming itself without an outside stimulus. That’s where we come in."

Under Murphy’s leadership, the unpaid commissioners are scrutinizing the performance, operations, and spending of 15 of the largest state agencies and programs. Their goal: to make state government smaller, leaner, more efficient, and more accountable. They have so far identified about $500 million in waste. The commission’s final report, containing recommendations for merit pay, privatization, tax policy, performance-based budgeting, and ethics reform, will be released this summer.

The idea for the commission was hatched in 1996 by Mike Watson, the new president of a fledgling conservative state think tank called the Arkansas Policy Foundation. "At the time, I was worried that the typical things that think tanks do—publishing studies, writing op-eds, hosting events—might not be provocative enough to keep us alive," explains Watson. A citizen-driven review of Arkansas government seemed to be the perfect vehicle for increasing its influence.

Watson and several of his board members asked Murphy, a member of one of Arkansas’s most prominent families, to chair the commission. After spending several months sounding out top Arkansas business and political leaders about whether such an initiative was worthwhile, he accepted.

Between them, Murphy and Jack T. "Steve" Stephens, the chairman of the board of the Arkansas Policy Foundation, knew most of the state’s power brokers and business leaders. With their recruiting prowess, the membership of the Murphy Commission soon read like a "Who’s Who" of Arkansas’s movers and shakers: Murphy, Stephens (a successful biotech entrepreneur whose father runs family-owned Stephens Inc., one of the largest brokerage houses in the country), Jim Walton (a son of the late Sam Walton), and dozens of corporate CEOs.

The foundation supplies the entire three-person staff. They coordinate the day-to-day activities of the commission, conduct most of the research, and raise the money—budgeted at $280,000—needed to operate it.

The membership of the commission is about evenly split between Republicans and Democrats, with a large contingent of independents. The commission’s legislative advisory group, whose role is to ensure the commission’s recommendations are practical and feasible, is chaired by the leader of each chamber of the legislature, both Democrats. The bipartisan makeup of the commission is critical, for a group run by Republicans would have no clout in a state so long dominated by the Democratic Party.

One of the commission’s biggest boosters is Republican governor Mike Huckabee, who mentioned it in his inaugural address. "The citizens of Arkansas deserve constant supervision of their state government," he noted in a radio address. "The Murphy Commission will provide the people of Arkansas with this needed evaluation."

The Whole Enchilada

The Murphy Commission has been charged with looking at Arkansas’s entire state government. "We’ve bitten off the whole enchilada," says Murphy. This is no small undertaking in a state whose Cadillac-sized government serves a Civic-sized population. Arkansas ranks 33rd among states in population, but 12th in the percentage of the work force employed by the state. With 52 departments and 388 boards and commissions, the state government is the biggest employer in Arkansas, larger than the number two and number three employers combined.

During Bill Clinton’s governorship, "state government grew by leaps and bounds," says Stephens. "We lost sight of what we can afford and what government should do." On Clinton’s watch, state spending grew as a proportion of personal income almost three times faster than in the average Southeastern state and 42 percent faster than the national average. Stephens views the commission as a response to the fiscal imprudence of the Clinton era.

The commission aims to accomplish more than merely increasing government’s efficiency. Its first report, "The Role and Function of State Government," attempts to define the state’s core functions. "The first question the commission asks of every state program we examine is ‘Should government even be doing this at all?’ " explains Murphy. Second, how can the state bring competition to those services in which government does need to be involved?

As the state’s biggest expenses, the departments of education, human services, and corrections are getting the most scrutiny. The commission’s education subcommittee is setting the following goals for reform: raise academic standards, counter union influence, improve parental choice, create charter schools, reduce the role of the state education department, streamline administrative services, remove legal barriers to reform, and examine the value of technology in education. Stephens is determined to bring school choice to Arkansas, vowing that "if a voucher proposal makes its way onto the ballot, we will not be outspent."

A National Model?

It is easy to be cynical about the commission’s prospects of actually remaking government. Given the state’s history, the idea that Arkansas could become a national model for government reform would seem absurd. Moreover, blue ribbon commissions in general have a poor record. In the past decade, at least a dozen states have appointed such commissions to examine their governments. More often than not, the recommendations have been ignored by the politicians. Nevertheless, I wouldn’t bet against this citizen’s commission.

First, this is a sophisticated group of people: Commission members include French Hill, a former undersecretary of the U.S. Treasury, and Michael Williams, a former U.S. assistant secretary of education, to name a few. Second, a number of factors make Arkansas a particularly good place for a citizen-driven approach to restructuring government: a strong business community, a large contingent of conservative and moderate Democrats, the strong backing of the governor, a somewhat homogenous population with shared values, and a consensus among Arkansans that their government needs a fundamental overhaul. Furthermore, the state’s power elite is so small that all the key players know each other.

Third, the Murphy Commission has a tremendous window of opportunity to make its agenda into a major campaign issue this year. Thanks to term limits, 50 percent of Arkansas state representatives cannot run for re-election in 1998. Many new candidates will be looking for high-profile issues during a period of popular support for political and governmental reform. Victorious pro-Murphy Commission candidates would have a mandate for change—and a blueprint for achieving it.

The Murphy Commission model won’t work everywhere. In large and diverse states such as California and New York, the sheer number of interest groups and power centers would doom such an initiative. And in many states, the ideological gap between Democrats and Republicans makes bipartisanship impossible.

But in countless other cities, counties, and states, a citizen-driven model of government review could make a difference. A number of other state think tanks are looking at the commission as a model for reform.

Despite long odds and long work hours, Mike Watson doesn’t regret his decision to focus all his think tank’s resources on the commission. "We’re creating a whole new model to pull citizens back into the process of re-engaging their government," says Watson. "I’d like to think we’re on the verge of making history here in Arkansas."

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