PUBLIC OFFICIALS of the YEAR

Mike Beebe 2011 HONOREE

Governor, State of Arkansas

Think of the states that have weathered the financial storm best, and North Dakota and Alaska -- rich in lucrative oil -- likely come to mind. But Arkansas should too. As the 2011 fiscal year approached, it was one of just four states that didn’t face a budget shortfall, and it repeated that fortune this year. Followers of Arkansas politics say it’s largely due to the steady fiscal hand of Gov. Mike Beebe, who has more authority over the state budget than most of his counterparts elsewhere.

Beebe has taken a conservative, measured approach to budgeting, and he has the authority to adjust the budget as revenue fluctuates. As a result, Arkansas hasn’t dug itself into a hole, and it’s avoided many of the painful layoffs and deep cuts that other states have endured. “I don’t micromanage anything in state government,” Beebe says, “except money.”

While Beebe doesn’t have a strong national profile, he’s overwhelmingly popular within his state. In April, as the legislative session was winding down, he had a job approval rating of 67 percent. Even more unusual: Beebe, a Democrat, is enjoying enormous support even as his state is quickly shifting from blue to red. In his 2010 re-election, Beebe defeated his Republican challenger by a 30-point margin; in the same election, voters put more Republicans in office than any time since Reconstruction.

“Arkansans feel pretty good about the direction they’re heading,” says Jay Barth, a political science professor at Hendrix College near Little Rock. “Some would say in this environment, a state’s citizens feeling pretty good about their government is an accomplishment in and of itself.”

Part of Beebe’s bipartisan appeal stems from the fact that he typically steers clear of polarizing social issues while focusing on policies to improve his state. He has increased the state’s investment in education, where Arkansas has made significant improvement. Education Week now ranks Arkansas sixth in the country for the quality of its K-12 program. He’s also promoted worker training programs for businesses looking to relocate to Arkansas. And for all the talk of the so-called “Texas miracle,” Arkansas actually has a lower unemployment rate than the neighboring Lone Star State, as well as the country at large. Beebe attributes this in part to his Quick Action Closing Fund, a multimillion-dollar discretionary fund the Legislature gave him months after taking office that continues today. The cash allows him to provide incentives like infrastructure assistance to businesses creating jobs in Arkansas.

“This is a guy who has loads of experience, and it shows,” says Janine Parry, a political science professor at the University of Arkansas. “He knows which fights to fight, and which fights to leave to another day or another person.”

Beebe’s marquee issue has been his efforts to gradually reduce Arkansas’ grocery tax. His incremental approach -- as opposed to an outright elimination, which would have been more challenging -- seems to have paid off. Lawmakers have spent decades unsuccessfully railing against the tax, but Beebe has had more success than any of them, reducing it from 6 percent to 1.5 percent during his tenure. The strategy he often repeats -- “underpromise and overdeliver” -- has become a hallmark of his administration and a reflection of his ability to govern wisely during turbulent times.

“I think people running for office sell the electorate short sometimes,” Beebe says. “Telling them the truth on the front end, and not making wild promises, is important.”

— Ryan Holeywell
Photo by David Kidd

In this video, Gov. Beebe signs legislation signs a grocery tax bill. Video runs about six minutes.