By Steve Brawner
© 2016 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
Some things in government are hard, such as providing health care to 250,000 poor Arkansans, maintaining the state’s highways without raising taxes, or taking care of 4,900 foster kids. What should not be hard is maintaining a house.
Yet here we are again, spending more than a million dollars on that old place where the state’s chief executive lives – the Governor’s “Mansion.”
The house is once again making headlines after a law passed in the recent special session turned the Mansion Commission from a governing body that makes decisions into merely a consultant, and gave the governor the ability to dismiss any commission member. He already appoints them.
The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette began asking questions and was given a tour of the Mansion. It leaks, there are plumbing and wiring issues, and the reporter could smell the remains of rat urine in the governor’s private office. There’s been some disagreement between the first lady and the Mansion Commission about the condition of the house, about the decor, and about the number of public events in the adjoining Great Hall, by far the nicest structure on the grounds.
So now the state will spend $1.1 million next year for maintenance and remodeling as well as expenses that are less than necessary. The original grant application of $1.4 million included a sculpture on the grounds that first lady Susan Hutchinson wants to hang at a cost of $128,000, as well as a 72-inch television and a private washer and dryer for the first family. They currently use the same ones the staff use. Because the grant was for less than what was requested, the list will be pared.
Does all this sound familiar? You might recall that, in 2000, then-Gov. Mike Huckabee and wife Janet moved a triple-wide onto the grounds while $1.4 million in upgrades were done to the house. That triple-wide produced a lot of jokes as well as an invitation for the Huckabees to appear on “The Tonight Show” with Jay Leno.
There’s some he-said, she-said to this latest story, and I’m leaving out a lot of details that you can find elsewhere. Reasonable people can disagree, especially when they don’t have all the information.
What’s pretty clear is that, over less than two decades, the state is spending $2.5 million on a house that has been a problem since it was built – in 1950, which makes it not much older than many houses in Arkansas. It looks big from the outside, but the actual upstairs living quarters are not, and there’s not much privacy when events are occurring in the Great Hall. Other governors before the Hutchinsons have complained about problems with basic maintenance such as wiring and water leakage. My wife worked there in 1998 and recalls her downstairs computer flickering followed by a frustrated Janet Huckabee exclaiming from upstairs that she was just tying to blow-dry her hair.
So if this were a car, we’d call it a lemon.
Maybe we should challenge the assumption that the first family should live in a house funded by the taxpayers, maintained by the government, beset with politics, and shared with everyone. Until 1950, governors were responsible for their own dwellings. The state doesn’t provide free living quarters for other officials; some congressmen have slept in their offices in Washington, D.C. Some states don’t even have a governor’s mansion.
It’s tempting to write that perhaps the state should knock down the house and keep the Great Hall. The Governor’s Mansion isn’t the White House. It’s not that old, it’s not an office building, and it’s not the center of Arkansas politics. That would be the Capitol, which despite being twice as old, works just fine.
Two other solutions are probably better options: Gut the thing and fix it up right, or turn it into a museum like another public building that outlived its original purpose, the Old State House. Maybe the governor should work hard during the day and then come home to, well, a home.
It’s proving unnecessarily challenging to maintain a public building of which the occupants are temporary while respecting those occupants’ privacy and well-being. This is a problem that can be solved without a special legislative session. Arkansas is not wealthy, but also not destitute. The governor and his/her family should not live like royalty, but they should have a nice house – if necessary, their own.