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'Pet Issues' Rush In When Ark. Opens Door to Constitution

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After spending much of last month poring over proposed revisions to the Arkansas Constitution, Rep. Ted Thomas had a simple recommendation. Delete just one word from the school-funding section: public.

"I knew I was dropping a bombshell here, but that seems to be my role," said Mr. Thomas, a Republican in a state whose legislative and executive branches are dominated by Democrats. "I like to mix it up a bit."

Lawmakers last week finished work on a draft constitution by Gov. Jim Guy Tucker, but the document still has a long journey before it becomes final.

The state constitution, written in 1874, has been tinkered with over the years but never overhauled.

Members of a legislative panel that reviewed the constitution's education provisions shot down Mr. Thomas' proposal, which he said would leave the door open to start a voucher program in which public monies could be funneled to private schools.

Gov. Tucker argues that his draft would not bar the possibility of vouchers and thus makes Mr. Thomas' proposal unnecessary.

Many observers in the state point to Mr. Thomas' effort as an example of what can happen when a state opens debate on a document that lays out government's most basic promises to its citizens.

"There's no question that you open the door to all kinds of things," said Sen. Lu Hardin, the Democratic chairman of the Senate education committee. "You bet pet issues like this could come back up again at some point in the process. The battle is not over yet."

'One Word Can Wreak Havoc'

Although the governor maintains that his draft constitution would not bar vouchers, some conservative groups in the state have said they disagree and might oppose the document on that basis. And Mr. Thomas' proposal has sparked a spirited debate among both Democrats and Republicans.

"I think vouchers send the message that the legislature may be giving up on [public] education," said Rep. Bob McGinnis, the Democratic chairman of the House education committee. "People like Mr. Thomas are looking for stuff that their constituents want."

"Some people are not friendly toward public education," said Rep. James C. Luker, a Democrat. "We haven't seen the end of this."

But Mr. Thomas' proposal was exactly the kind of thing the governor wants to avoid in rewriting the constitution, said Max Parker, a spokeswoman for Gov. Tucker.

"One word can wreak havoc, no question about that," Ms. Parker said. "But the governor has been very clear that his goal is for a document to be submitted to the people that is fairly uncontroversial."

The governor proposed revising the constitution because many of its provisions are outdated, Ms. Parker said. The constitution currently requires that property taxes be spent only in the districts in which they are collected. But the governor and lawmakers agreed that in order to satisfy a Pulaski County judge's ruling that the way school districts are funded is unconstitutional, property taxes must be shared among districts. (See Education Week, Nov. 23, 1994.)

Apart from school funding, the governor is not recommending any major changes to the constitution's education section. He is proposing that districts levy a property tax of at least 25 mills.

Some of the new money would be pooled and redistributed. His proposal is included in his draft constitution, with the caveat that the 25-mill rate can go up or down if voters approve it. But in case the effort to revise the constitution is stymied, the governor's school-funding plan will go to the voters as a ballot measure in 1996.

The governor is considering calling for an Oct. 18 special session for lawmakers to go through the constitution and approve money to hold a constitutional convention early next year.

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