Modern Era, 1968 through the Present

In November 2004, President George W. Bush joined former presidents George H. W. Bush and Jimmy Carter to speak at the dedication of the William Jefferson Clinton Presidential Library in Little Rock (Pulaski County). Thousands of people, including a broad array of notable national and international figures, braved an incessant rain to hear these men celebrate the career of the former Arkansas governor. Following an introduction by Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, President Bill Clinton explained that the library architecture symbolized the bridging of the past and future. This observation on the force of history resonated particularly with Arkansans. The rise of Clinton himself to the presidency demonstrated the social and political transformation of his native state.

The Emergence of the Progressives
When he took office in January 1967, Winthrop Rockefeller, the first Republican governor since Reconstruction, promised to dismantle the Old Guard regime of Orval Faubus, who had retired after twelve years as governor. The Rockefeller program included appointing trained professionals to restructured government agencies, raising taxes to support education, and promoting greater opportunities for African Americans.

These initiatives met with varying degrees of success. Revelations of the appalling conditions in Arkansas prisons enabled Rockefeller to establish the Department of Corrections and institute the first substantial reforms since the end of the convict lease system in 1913. Yet the legislature was accustomed to self-supporting penitentiaries and did not approve critical funding appropriations. In 1970, Federal District Judge J. Smith Henley ruled the prison system was a “dark and evil world” that failed to meet federal constitutional standards. As Faubus had done in 1957, Rockefeller proposed an ambitious tax program for schools, but the legislature acquiesced to only a fraction of his request. The governor ordered the state police to shut down Hot Springs (Garland County) casinos that had defied state anti-gambling laws for decades, but even this popular action failed to keep Democratic leaders from limiting Rockefeller’s powers of appointment. Rockefeller secured the authorization of a convention to replace the often-amended 1874 state constitution, but various special interests mobilized in 1970 to defeat the proposed document in a general referendum. The governor broke precedent by naming black leaders to head state agencies and offices. Alone among Southern governors, Rockefeller publicly memorialized Martin Luther King Jr. shortly after the assassination of the civil rights leader, but as the national Republican Party began to court white Southerners, Rockefeller increasingly touted voluntary compliance rather than energetic enforcement of civil rights measures.

Rockefeller was not the first modern reform governor in Arkansas, although his efforts to base the state’s advancement on clean government and inclusive politics blazed a new trail. He believed that progress required a vigorous two-party system but failed to revive a competitive Republican Party. On the other hand, Rockefeller’s defeat of the segregationist Jim Johnson for governor in 1966 and Old Guard stalwart Marion Crank in 1968 demonstrated that clinging to the Faubus legacy imperiled Democratic dominance of politics.

In 1970, Dale Bumpers, a dark horse candidate for governor, defeated Faubus in the Democratic primary and Rockefeller in the general election. A leader in the early desegregation of the Charleston (Franklin County) schools, Bumpers was the first racial moderate since Governor Sid McMath to win his party’s nomination. The improved relationship between the new governor and the legislature was not only due to a shared partisan identification. Redistricting, based on federal court standards for equitable representation, ushered into the General Assembly lawmakers who were younger, reformist, and obligated to urban constituencies. Although not all the older members were banished, Bumpers won sufficient allies to make the 1971 session a landmark in the state’s political history.

The Rockefeller agenda loomed large in legislative debates. Bumpers depended upon the previous administration’s blueprint to press for the reorganization of dozens of state agencies into thirteen cabinet departments. He also followed precedent by emphasizing education improvements but stunned lawmakers with a proposal to raise the income tax for the first time since the levy was established in 1929. A boost in the sales tax would have required only a simple majority in both chambers, but Bumpers objected to its regressive effect and forged the necessary three-fourths majorities to increase the maximum tax rate on incomes. The surge in revenues led to higher teacher salaries, kindergarten classes throughout the state, and free textbooks in high schools. During his two terms, Bumpers went beyond the usual reform preoccupation with schools and roads to broaden services to the elderly and disabled, rehabilitate the state parks, establish regional health education centers, underwrite community college operations, strengthen consumer protection, and jumpstart prison construction.

Historians of the state rank Bumpers as the finest twentieth-century governor, but he viewed the office as a stepping stone. In 1974, his successful campaign to oust U.S. Senator J. William Fulbright split households. Moderates had to choose between the senator with an international reputation and a governor heralded by national columnists as molding a new Southern progressivism. In the end, Fulbright’s consistent opposition to civil rights legislation and criticism of the Vietnam War provoked defections from both the left and right and led to Bumpers’s victory.

In 1974, Orval Faubus once again attempted to regain the governor’s chair but lost to a veteran antagonist of the Old Guard, David Pryor. In the early 1960s, Pryor was a young state representative from Camden (Ouachita County) pushing for reforms opposed by the Faubus administration, but his 1974 gubernatorial campaign benefited from the backing of venerable power brokers such as Witt Stephens. Following the Rockefeller model, Pryor appointed female and black leaders to the Supreme Court and influential commissions, consolidated six agencies into a new department of heritage, and strengthened oversight of state fund distribution to local governments and service providers. He also took up the cause of constitutional reform, and his efforts led to the calling of a new convention to take up the task. And as with the 1970 initiative, the lack of widespread popular support for the proposed constitution gave interest groups the opportunity to muster their supporters in the 1980 general election to reject it decisively.

In contrast to the preceding administrations, Pryor confronted declining revenues accompanying the national economic woes in the latter half of the 1970s. Not content with belt-tightening, Pryor in his second term proposed a dramatic reorientation in government services, reversing the post–World War II trend of greater centralization. The governor’s “Arkansas Plan” slashed the income tax by twenty-five percent while shifting new taxing authority to local governments, which could choose whether to provide the public services the state government could no longer afford. Pryor attempted to stir popular support through a series of public meetings but could not overcome the opposition of county officials who feared their citizens would not approve new taxes to restore local coffers. During the tumultuous 1977 session, Pryor’s revision of his plan did not prevent the legislature from shearing away its substantive provisions. Localism and dispersion of authority, the traditional pillars of Arkansas government, were not to be rebuilt.

The debacle did little to diminish the popularity of Pryor, whose amiability counted for a lot in a state where voters still expected to be courted personally. His fiscal restraint as governor reassured those troubled by his image as a liberal crusader, and in 1978, Pryor won a hotly contested race for the U.S. Senate seat previously held by John McClellan, who had died the previous year.

Industry and Business
Changes in the work and daily lives of Arkansans accompanied the on-going political changes. The state raced to catch up with the national economy but welcomed industries that were on the wane elsewhere. The closing of large factories in the Midwest allowed Arkansas to boast that its manufacturing sector grew at six times the national average in the 1970s. Personal income figures climbed as farm labor disappeared. Yet continued dependence on food-processing and clothing plants, with only modest additions of better-paying industrial operations, took its toll on wage growth. Lumber mills, rather than metal and machine factories, continued most years to lead the production of durable goods. The state’s per capita personal income after World War II rose from half to about three-quarters the national level by the 1970s, but it languished at that stage into the twenty-first century.

Agriculture continued to play a major role despite the fact that there were only about a third of the farms at the end of the century as had existed fifty years earlier. Surviving farms were larger, and their owners continued to flex the necessary political muscle to channel a steady stream of federal revenue into Arkansas as well as shape state policies regarding the environment and water management. The number of contract poultry growers also began to decline as the processing companies demanded larger, state-of-art chicken houses to boost production levels. The average grower’s capital investment approached one-half million dollars by the late 1990s. The new production efficiencies in raising chickens meant that major processors enjoyed a steady supply at a cost they largely determined.

Even careful management of expenses did not buffer the poultry processors from a volatile market. Value-added products such as skinless chicken parts or prepared specialty items commanded higher prices at the check-out registers but did not prevent sudden downturns in the industry. Fewer poultry firms in Arkansas survived the 1970s, and Tyson Foods launched its aggressive acquisition strategy in the following decade. In 1989, the Springdale-based company led by Don Tyson bought out the nation’s third-largest poultry manufacturer and became the largest meat producer with the 1998 purchase of the beef division of Hudson Foods and the 2001 acquisition of beef and pork producer IBP of South Dakota. While these deals confirmed Tyson’s global reach, state economic boosters heralded the firm as a home-grown success story. An official of the Arkansas Economic Development Commission at the time of the IBP merger noted, “Tyson is a major business partner in our state. When Tyson does well, our state does well.” And no part of the state did better than the region that was home to Tyson’s headquarters.

The northwest corridor stretching from Fort Smith (Sebastian County) through Springdale (Washington County) to the border with Missouri was prospering as the twentieth century came to a close. The presence of the food processors drew trucking firms to that corner of the state, which became home to the largest concentration of major long-distance haulers in the nation. Historically a market and financial center, Fayetteville (Washington County) continued to benefit from the state’s major public university, the University of Arkansas, which attracted both new residents and fervent football fans. Retirees found Rogers (Benton County) congenial due in part to its proximity to Beaver Lake, an Army Corps of Engineers project that kept the population boom from outstripping the water supply. And no locale grew more spectacularly than Benton County, which had the second highest per capita income. The county’s transformation began in 1950 when Sam Walton lost his lease on a Ben Franklin store in the delta community of Newport.

Although he started his own five-and-dime outlet in Bentonville (Benton County), Walton saw little promise in these traditional anchors of downtown squares and opened his first Wal-Mart Discount City in Rogers in 1962. His company’s future remained uncertain until 1969, when he began in-house distribution of goods to his stores from a vast warehouse on the outskirts of Bentonville. As had Tyson Foods, Walmart Inc. in the 1980s fueled its expansion through the acquisition of rivals. By early 1991, the company pushed aside floundering giants such as Sears and Kmart to become the nation’s largest retailer. Success stoked criticism throughout the nation that Walmart Inc. doomed small-town merchants and drove down wage levels. But Arkansans generally esteemed Walton as a folksy billionaire who drove his own pick-up around Bentonville, and they also relished the astonishment of outside business mavens who were puzzled that such a small state could nurture a Tyson, a Walton, a Stephens, and other capitalists forging national reputations. The native goodwill toward the company did not falter with Walton’s death in 1992. State institutions enjoyed the blossoming largesse of Walton family foundations.

Population Changes and Social Issues
By 2000, Benton County was the third most populous county in the state behind metropolitan Pulaski County, as armies of vendors opened offices near the Walmart Inc. headquarters. The good fortunes of the western upland region in the last decade of the twentieth century contrasted with the chronic woes of the Delta, once the center of the state’s wealth and power. In the east Arkansas counties with the greatest concentration of poverty, the owners of the largest farms flourished with rising commodity sales and reliable federal payments. The traditional plantation had died with the widespread adoption of technology in the early 1960s, while soybeans supplanted “King Cotton” after World War II. In addition, the expansion of rice cultivation lifted the state’s agricultural income. The easing of federal rice allotments in the early 1970s and their abolition by the end of the decade permitted farmers beyond the core rice-growing area in the Grand Prairie to switch to the new crop. In 2004, the number of acres devoted to rice in Arkansas was three and a half times the 1972 level and represented nearly half of the national rice acreage.

However, changes on the land did not bring jobs. Though reporters and social scientists in the 1970s called attention to Delta impoverishment with the same searing descriptions that had awakened Americans to Appalachian misery in the 1960s, the grim statistics did not immediately lead to a Delta counterpart of the Appalachian Regional Commission. Only in the late 1980s did Congress approve a bill offered by Sen. Bumpers to fund a study to outline ways to resuscitate the region. The resulting 1990 report only bore fruit eleven years later when the Delta Regional Authority was authorized to distribute up to $30 million of grants annually to communities in eight states for employment training as well as road and sewer upgrades. Arkansas, like the other states, welcomed the new funds, which remained far below the authorized maximum.

The purpose of this Delta program was to enable disadvantaged localities to attract new industries rather than to supply payments for the needy or underwrite community action groups. For its part, Arkansas broadened its subsidies for private companies, including a 1985 sales tax waiver for plant expansion and a 2004 authorization of general bond issues for infrastructure improvements demanded by large employers. Advocates for the economic development approach to alleviating poverty pointed to bright spots in east Arkansas. Jonesboro (Craighead County) posted growth numbers rarely seen outside the northwest or central sections; two specialized steel plants near Blytheville (Mississippi County) paid hundreds of workers premium wages; and Japanese companies manufacturing parts for automobiles and trucks constructed factories in Mississippi, Cross, and Crittenden counties. However, the amount of private investment was insufficient to stem long-term trends. The flight of Delta residents to more promising areas accelerated in the first years of the twenty-first century. Whereas the black population had dominated the first wave of migration beginning in the 1940s, almost all of the new people departing were white.

Immigration into Arkansas
For the state as a whole in the twentieth century, only in the 1970s and the 1990s did more people move into Arkansas than left it. In the 1990s, many of the newcomers were natives of Mexico and Central America who migrated from Texas and California for jobs in the poultry-processing plants. At one point in the 1990s, Arkansas had the fastest-growing Hispanic population of any state, although the 2000 census revealed that only three percent of Arkansans were Hispanic. First attracted to the booming northwest corner, Hispanics soon established homes in Little Rock and southwest Arkansas. In Sevier County, the Hispanic population grew from 632 residents in 1990 to 3,107 in 2000, making up twenty percent of the county’s total population. The forming of ethnic immigrant communities introduced new cultural traditions into a state whose population had been overwhelmingly biracial, with Asians being less than one percent of the state’s population. As Hispanic entrepreneurs opened specialty stores selling Spanish language videos or Mexican groceries, even rigorously standardized Walmart Inc. began to make room on its shelves for products desired by the new customers. The state’s major newspaper chains published Spanish language weekly supplements, and new independent newspapers carried bilingual articles about the state and Latin American developments. The arrival of these newest Arkansans also shaped political debates. A 2002 poll revealed greater skepticism in northwest Arkansas than in other regions as to whether the state benefited from the Hispanic migration. Calls for tougher action against illegal immigration came to the fore in the 2001 Republican primary for the northwest district’s seat in the U.S. Congress. In the 2005 legislative session, the state senator from Springdale introduced a series of bills to cut benefits to undocumented residents. The proposals were not enacted.

Urbanization and Globalization
The search for opportunity was not confined to migrants entering the state. The emptying of the countryside into Arkansas cities continued, although the rate slowed after 1970. The census for that year was the first to show that more Arkansans lived in towns and cities than in rural areas. Urbanization fed the rise in household incomes. Black wage earners in particular entered a wider range of occupations in the urban areas, while the black business and professional class flourished primarily in Pine Bluff and Little Rock. In the early 1970s, the first black state legislators in the post-segregation era came from these two cities; not until 1989 did court-ordered redistricting lead to the election of Ben McGee as the first black representative from an east Arkansas county. By the 1999 legislative session, fifteen black leaders served in the General Assembly.

In 1999, however, no women served in the state senate, making it the only all-male legislative body in the nation. After Dorathy Allen of Brinkley (Monroe County) became the first woman to serve in the state senate in 1965, no more than one female senator served in any subsequent session. In 2005, six female senators took seats, although the number of female members of the House of Representatives had declined from twenty in 1999 to sixteen. As with black leaders, women had an easier time securing elective office at the municipal and county levels. This mixed record was also reflected in the economic sphere. Arkansas women by 2000 were as likely to work outside the home as women throughout America, while the pay gap with male employees was the same as the national proportion. Female-owned businesses increased by 1,000 percent since the late 1970s, but Arkansas had a smaller percentage of women in managerial positions than almost any other state. Black women in particular were more likely to be confined to low-wage service jobs.

Tremors from the new global economy unsettled the foundations of the modern Arkansas economy. The state’s apparel and shoe industry capsized in the 1990s in the face of low-wage competition from Asian nations. The non-durable goods plants had been dispersed throughout small towns, and many of these locales in rural areas faced a period of uncertain recovery. Between September 1997 and April 1998, clothing plants in Harrison (Boone County), Fayetteville, Jonesboro, Walnut Ridge (Lawrence County), and Augusta (Woodruff County) shut the doors on nearly 1,300 workers. The mayor of the east Arkansas community of Augusta noted, “It’s a hard lick to lose 350 jobs in a town of 3,000.” The trend continued into the twenty-first century, even among industries demanding more highly skilled workers. In 2005, the Whirlpool corporation shifted 750 positions from its Fort Smith (Sebastian County) plant to a manufacturing center in Mexico. Overall, between 2002 and 2004, more than 9,000 jobs disappeared as 120 plants closed throughout the state. Although state economic development officials had asserted since the late 1980s that Arkansas would need to attract technologically sophisticated industries to remain prosperous, persistent educational shortcomings and lack of investment capital had blunted these initiatives. In the early years of the twenty-first century, the state veered in a new direction to pursue large-scale manufacturing operations such as automotive plants.

Various demographic, economic, and social statistics confirmed that, during the last half of the twentieth century, Arkansas changed even more thoroughly than modern America as a whole. The demarcations of the old Arkansas had been largely geographic. The upland mixed-crop economy coexisted with the lowland staple crop cultivated by a workforce kept in check by poverty and oppression. Little Rock had been the financial and political hub of one of the most rural states in the nation, while the other towns were regional market centers. The new divisions framed a more complex society. In 2000, the mushrooming cities in Washington and Benton counties represented a metropolitan region that was both independent from and a rival to urban central Arkansas in the contest for influence and resources. The population growth and wealth of Little Rock was exceeded by surrounding suburbs and edge cities, which were settled by an escalating proportion of white residents. Meanwhile, south and east Arkansas represented a distinctive section, defined less by geography than by the persistence of the agricultural and resource-based economy.

Political Change
These new social and economic realities shaped the practice of politics and the expectations for government. By the 1980s, no single person could wield the degree of influence over the state legislature once exercised by Hamilton Moses of Arkansas Power and Light or Witt Stephens. Corporate officers and lobbyists for the poultry and trucking companies, utilities, insurance firms, and agricultural and timber interests vied for the attention of legislators, who also were compelled to listen to representatives from labor, education, social welfare agencies, and local government. This belated shift from politics driven by personality to politics shaped by interest groups coincided with a rising challenge to Democratic Party preeminence as Republicans claimed significant elective offices. Nevertheless, Republicans outside northwest Arkansas remained overmatched at the local level. Arkansas did not join the general Southern abandonment of the Democratic Party.

In 1980, the state reversed its earlier support for Jimmy Carter, the incumbent Democratic president, in favor of conservative Ronald Reagan, while also turning out after one term Governor Bill Clinton in favor of his Republican opponent, Frank White. President Carter had fallen out of favor in May 1980 when he housed large numbers of refugees from Cuba at Fort Chaffee outside Fort Smith, and White’s campaign had gained points by upbraiding Clinton for capitulating to his fellow Democrat. Although subtle, White’s television advertisements of black Cubans bolting past federal sentries constituted a latter-day appeal to white racial fears. Clinton had already been weakened by signing an unpopular increase in fees for automobile license renewals and by considering restrictions on clear-cutting practices on timber company land.

As a free-market businessman and Protestant evangelical, White was closer to the ascendant conservative wing of the Republican Party than to the moderate reformism of Winthrop Rockefeller. White’s program emphasized budget cuts, and its modesty led to a minimum of friction with the Democratic General Assembly. The governor did support a watered-down version of Pryor’s “Arkansas Plan” when he signed a bill that allowed local governments to seek approval for sales taxes. These new levies proved to be popular with voters, and by 2005, many Arkansans would be paying sales taxes that ranked among the highest in the nation. In 1981, the White administration gained its greatest share of headlines by its vigorous defense of Act 590, a law effectively requiring the teaching of “creation science” in the public school classrooms. The American Civil Liberties Union backed a suit in federal district court, arguing that the new act employed state funds to advance a religious doctrine. In January 1982, Judge William Overton struck down the law, and the court case of McLean v. Arkansas came to an end when Attorney General Steve Clark decided not to appeal the ruling. Rather than provoke a popular protest in that election year, Gov. White accepted the decision to halt the case.

Clinton made his first comeback by winning the rematch with Frank White in 1982. Believing that an activist reform agenda in his first term had angered voters, a chastened Clinton asked little of the legislature until the Arkansas Supreme Court held that the method of funding public schools violated the state constitutional requirement for equitable distribution of resources. A 1983 special session of the General Assembly approved the governor’s wide-ranging proposal, which largely followed the lines of recommendations drafted by a study commission headed by Hillary Rodham Clinton, the governor’s wife. She built popular support for the reforms through numerous public meetings, enabling the legislature to approve a one-cent sales tax for expanded curriculum, smaller class sizes, and higher teacher salaries. The greatest public controversy erupted over the requirement that all teachers pass a test to achieve recertification. The fervent objections of the Arkansas Education Association failed to derail the testing provision.

Persistent economic woes in the state and the nation during the 1980s checked Clinton’s attempts to expand his educational program and secure additional tax increases. He was heartened in 1988 when his proposed initiated act to set up an ethics commission gained a strong majority during the general election after the legislature had spurned the idea. In 1990, Clinton’s tepid launch of the campaign for re-election to a fifth term suggested that he was both spent from a decade of political wars and was already pointing toward a presidential run, yet the 1991 legislative session proved to be the most constructive since 1983, due in part to the court-ordered redistricting that unseated several east Arkansas conservatives. Extensive legislative turnover would become institutionalized in 1992 when voters approved one of the most restrictive term-limit measures in the nation. The 1991 General Assembly supported tax increases for schools and expansion of the community college system as well as a state-wide highway maintenance and construction program. This session solidified Clinton’s record as a Southern moderate who believed that both his state’s well-being and individual opportunity were advanced by a program of better schools, racial inclusion, governmental professionalism, favorable business policies, and upgraded infrastructure. This reform agenda, originally launched by Gov. Rockefeller, later became the non-ideological, “third way” policy strategy of the Clinton presidential administration.

Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign victory raised the profile of an often-overlooked state while also provoking opponents to revive old stereotypes. Arkansas delivered a larger majority for Clinton than any other state, and the election night victory rally in downtown Little Rock was of the sort usually reserved for landmark victories by the University of Arkansas football team. Yet charges that the state’s political system remained mired in corruption and cronyism continued with the investigation into a late 1970s investment by the Clintons in a prospective Ozark resort that was to be called Whitewater. Though Judge Kenneth Starr, appointed as special prosecutor in 1994, failed to convict any Arkansas official of public corruption, his actions against Governor Jim Guy Tucker altered the course of the state’s politics.

In 1990, Tucker had decided not to challenge Clinton, an old rival, in the gubernatorial primary and settled for the lieutenant governor’s post. Taking the governor’s office in 1993 after Clinton moved to Washington DC, Tucker was an intimidating figure for legislators but failed to convince voters to back his plans for a massive highway bond issue and constitutional revision. In 1996, Starr charged that, during the 1980s, Tucker participated in a complicated scheme with Whitewater figures James and Susan McDougal to defraud the federal government based on over-valued real estate loans. When the federal jury returned a guilty verdict, Tucker announced that he would step down in July in accordance with the constitutional ban on those convicted of felonies from holding office. On the day set for the transfer of power, Tucker backtracked, claiming that jury bias provided grounds for overturning his conviction. For several hours, both Tucker and Lieutenant Governor Mike Huckabee claimed to be the governor of Arkansas; the potential constitutional crisis passed when Tucker relented by the end of the day.

The new governor, Huckabee, was the third Republican to hold the office in the twentieth century and arrived at a time when the Rockefeller hope of a genuine two-party system seemed close to realization. The Republican Party’s dominance of northwest Arkansas ensured that any Third District congressman would sit on the Republican side of the chamber for the foreseeable future. In the 1996 election, Tim Hutchinson became the first Republican since Reconstruction to serve the state in the U.S. Senate, and Winthrop P. Rockefeller, son of the late governor, became lieutenant governor. The Republican cause was also advanced in 1991 by the acquisition of the liberal Arkansas Gazette, the influential statewide newspaper, by Walter Hussman, the publisher of the rival Arkansas Democrat. The editorial pages of the newly christened Arkansas Democrat-Gazette touted Republican candidates and conservative principles. Nevertheless, the Democrats remained a powerful force. Even with term limits in place, the continuing large Democratic majority in the General Assembly made it unique among Southern legislatures. In 2000, Republican Congressman Jay Dickey of the southern Fourth District fell to Democratic state senator Mike Ross, and two years later, Senator Hutchinson was defeated by Mark Pryor, son of the still formidable David Pryor.

Huckabee, however, remained popular as governor. His victories in 1998 and 2002 allowed his administration to approach the longevity of the Faubus and Clinton tenures. In contrast to Rockefeller, he was a gifted public speaker and natural politician, while his brittle relations with the Democratic legislature owed as much to personality and managerial style as to partisan suspicions. Huckabee’s policies also demonstrated a cross current of Rockefeller activism and anti-government conservatism. A Southern Baptist minister, Huckabee often touted moral examples as the better corrective to social problems than government initiatives, and he enthusiastically cut taxes during the flush 1990s. Nevertheless, he worked with social welfare advocates to develop a program to extend health care to the children of the working poor, and in 1999, he won public support for the largest highway bond issue in the state’s history. After 2001, nearly every state faced a fiscal crisis; yet, Huckabee, in contrast to other Southern Republican governors, supported tax increases as well as budget cuts to address revenue shortfalls. His opposition to anti-immigrant bills in the 2005 session and backing of a measure to make illegal aliens eligible for in-state tuition rates and state-funded college scholarships earned him plaudits from Democrats and criticism from members of his own party. Party unity and discipline remained elusive in Arkansas politics.

In November 2002, when the Supreme Court found that the state had once again permitted the public school system to fail the constitutional test of equitability, Huckabee not only conceded the need for new revenue but also centered his education plan on the politically risky demand for massive school consolidation. However, his administration was unable to provide firm data on the amount of money to be saved through mergers, and even urban legislators were hard pressed to stave off fervent rural district defenders from both political parties. After the quick rebuff of his proposals, the angry governor kept his distance from the protracted negotiations over a new school funding formula during a lengthy 2003-04 special session. Huckabee’s effective withdrawal contrasted with the approach of his predecessors and disconcerted lawmakers accustomed to direct involvement of the executive branch. In the end, the legislators approved 111 bills during the education session, including raising the sales tax to produce most of the $360 million in new funds, the largest dollar amount increase in state history. Fifty-seven of the more than 300 school districts were consolidated, far fewer than the number originally recommended by Huckabee.

In June 2004, the Supreme Court determined that the legislative reforms had met the constitutional test but then revived the Lake View case the following year by siding with forty-nine school districts that argued the legislature had shortchanged the public education system in its 2005 session. During a brief special session in April 2006, the General Assembly added $144 million for school operations and $50 million for building needs as a response to the court’s decision. An attorney for the districts that filed the suit against the state anticipated that the struggle for providing a constitutionally adequate education would persist: “I don’t know if Lake View will go on forever, but school litigation is likely to go on forever.”

Court-ordered school funding reform in the 1980s had been a turning point in the career of Clinton, bolstering his reputation at a time when education took center stage as a national issue. Throughout his campaigns and presidency, the former governor never shied from identification with his home state. In a November 2004 television interview, Clinton explained why he chose to locate his presidential library on the banks of the Arkansas River: “I wanted it to come home to Arkansas, because these people made me president….And I wanted it on the river, because I love this river. It’s a big part of my childhood. I first swam in this river forty years ago or more.” These words evoked a nostalgic portrait of a state where the universities explored the frontiers of nanotechnology and biosciences and where leading industries established reputations in telecommunications and data management. The eclipse of the old society and economy through the integration of Arkansas into the national mainstream had made it possible for an Arkansas political leader to become an American president.

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Ben Johnson
Southern Arkansas University

Last Updated: 12/29/2017