LITTLE ROCK — Gov. Mike Beebe says if there is one thing he hopes his time in office will be remembered for, it is not a piece of legislation.
“I hope, if you had to narrow it down to one thing, if you were just forced to, it wouldn’t be any specific thing we’ve done, it would be an overall attitude of can-do across the board, of a good kind of pride — not the foolish kind of pride but a good kind of pride, and a good kind of swagger, not a bad kind of swagger but a kind of self-confidence that Arkansans can stand up to and compete with anybody else,” he said.
It’s an attitude “that hopefully we’ve imbued in more and more Arkansans,” Beebe said.
Casually dressed in jeans, loafers and a sweatshirt from his alma mater, Arkansas State University, a relaxed Beebe discussed his legacy in an interview with the Arkansas News Bureau in his office. Prevented by term limits from seeking a third term, Beebe is in his final year as governor.
Beebe discussed some of the changes that have occurred since he took office following his first election in 2006, including the national recession that struck during his first term and from which the nation and the state are still struggling to recover.
He came into office with a surplus of more than $900 million inherited from Republican Gov. Mike Huckabee and with state revenue reports that were rosier every month. He recalled that some opinion writers said at the time that anyone could govern under those circumstances.
“It didn’t take long for me to be tested on the other end of that spectrum, with regard to the worst recession of my lifetime,” he said.
While other states struggled with budget deficits, Arkansas experienced budget surpluses each year and even cut taxes — including, at Beebe’s urging, the gradual reduction of the state sales tax on groceries from 6 percent to the current 1 1/2 percent. A measure approved last year will lower the tax further to one-eighth of a percent if certain economic conditions are met.
“It’s not just me. I keep saying over and over, it’s a combination of a lot of people that have worked hard to get us through good times and bad,” Beebe said.
Democrats controlled the House and Senate when Beebe, a Democrat, first took office, but Republicans won majorities in both chambers in 2012. Beebe recalled that going into the 2013 regular session, “there was all this hoopla and talk about how different the place was gong to be, the sea change with Republicans taking over.”
During the session the Legislature gave bipartisan support to a plan to use federal Medicaid money to provide private health insurance to low-income Arkansans, an alternative to the federal Affordable Care Act’s proposal that states expand their Medicaid rolls.
“I was bragging on them during and after the session, and I’m still bragging on them,” Beebe said of state legislators.
Beebe acknowledged that he has not seen all the progress he would have liked to see.
“There are things I’m very proud of and things I wish we’d made more progress on,” he said. “We’ve still got too many folks unemployed. We’ve still not climbed on the education rankings high enough on some subcategories, particularly on some performance measures. We still have issues surrounding the disparity in geographic regions in our state for delivery of essential services such as health care. We still need (better access to) broadband.”
He said there is much that still needs to be done, “but then you also reflect on what we’ve been able to do. Good gosh, Arkansas’ been a shining example of how you go through tough times.”
A native of Amagon, Beebe served in the state Senate for 20 years and as attorney general for four years before being elected governor. He said has no plans to run for any other office.
“When I left (the Senate), I thought there wasn’t anything I was going to like that much. And you know, I liked the AG’s office, but it’s nothing like this. This is the best political job you can have,” he said.
As for what he will do, Beebe said, “I may teach a college course. I may serve on a board or two. I don’t know. I have no specific plans, offers or decided things to do as we speak.”
He said his immediate plan is to do nothing for a while after leaving office, although he said his wife, Ginger, has told him he “will not be able to do nothing.”
“She may be right. Well, I’m going to give it a chance,” he said with a laugh.