LITTLE ROCK — You can’t accuse Sheffield Nelson of ducking a good fight, or avoiding publicity.
Locked in an increasingly bitter legal battle with the Arkansas Game and Fish Commission, the former natural gas executive and two-time Republican gubernatorial hopeful has become a fixture in reporters’ inboxes in Arkansas. He’s also gearing up for a potential ballot campaign to raise the tax that natural gas companies pay, money he says could go toward the state’s highway needs.
A political heavyweight who was one of former President Bill Clinton’s chief adversaries, the political limelight is hardly new for Nelson. But his double-barreled assault on one of the state’s largest agencies and one of the state’s most powerful industries is puzzling, especially for someone who says his days as a candidate are over.
A former top executive of Arkla Inc., Nelson ran unsuccessfully for governor as a Republican in 1990 and 1994. Nelson, 69, says he doesn’t have any interest in running for the state’s top elected position — or any office — again.
“I do not plan to run for governor, now or at any time in the future,” Nelson said. “This is not for me. It’s for the people of Arkansas. I’m trying to do things that I can do from a public service standpoint. Those are my intentions.”
It’s the same kind of statement Nelson had to repeatedly make two years ago, when he first pushed for an increase in the severance tax to pay for highway improvements. Nelson’s push for an initiated act raising the tax spurred Gov. Mike Beebe to work out a compromise proposal with natural gas firms.
Nelson’s latest political fight has been with the Game and Fish Commission, which he chaired for two years. Nelson has filed a lawsuit accusing the panel, which regulates hunting and fishing around the state, of violating state law with a committee system that he says gives almost total control to three members of the panel.
Nelson has also accused the panel of violating the state’s Freedom of Information Act.
The panel has abandoned a plan to craft its own public records policies, a draft of which showed it to be vastly more restrictive than the state Freedom of Information Act allows. The proposal drew fierce criticism from Gov. Mike Beebe, Attorney General Dustin McDaniel and legislators before being dropped.
Nelson’s lawsuit has turned into a near-daily exchange of court filings and press releases between the commission and its former chairman, with the panel at one point issuing a news release accusing Nelson of misleading the public. Nelson, meanwhile, has asked for an audit of the commission.
The spat comes as Nelson says he’s eyeing another possible initiated-act campaign to raise the state severance tax.
Nelson said he’s hopeful that lawmakers will raise the tax to help pay for roads, calling it a better option than the tax hike proposals recently offered by a blue ribbon committee that studied highway funding. If not, he says he’ll likely take a tax hike to the voters with his own initiated act.
“We’ll go to the mat and see how the people feel,” Nelson said. “I think the people of Arkansas resent what’s taking place up there. I think they do not like them taking the gas out of here at a lesser rate.”
Unlike two years ago, Nelson faces a steeper challenge with the tax hike. Beebe appears much less likely to use Nelson’s threat to negotiate a compromise with natural gas companies. Nelson’s also floating the idea at a time when the Legislature — flush with Republicans at their largest numbers in the majority-Democrat Legislature since Reconstruction — may be focused primarily on tax cuts, not increases.
Nelson also faces the prospect of spearheading a major ballot campaign at the same time he may be locked in a court battle with Game and Fish. He says he hopes the dispute with Game and Fish will end in the near future, but says he can handle both at the same time.
“These just happen to be two unrelated things that happen to have the same time frame,” Nelson said.
DeMillo has covered Arkansas government and politics for The Associated Press since 2005.