LITTLE ROCK (AP) — The year couldn’t have started on a lower note for Attorney General Dustin McDaniel.
The two-term attorney general began 2013 facing questions about his political future after admitting to an extramarital relationship with a Hot Springs attorney. Weeks into the new year, he dropped his bid for the Democratic gubernatorial nomination after saying he was worried the race would focus more on his personal life than the state’s future.
But, approaching his final full year in office, McDaniel is hailing 2013 as one of the most productive for his office as he points to a list of policy victories he enjoyed. They include the possible phasing out of the decades-long desegregation payments Arkansas has made to three school districts, an agreement regarding tobacco settlement money and a water-quality study with Oklahoma.
"The big overarching things that have dominated my time in office have been tobacco and Oklahoma and education, and this has been a really great year for those things," McDaniel said in an interview with The Associated Press.
In January, McDaniel will learn just how productive of a year it has been when a judge holds a hearing on the agreement among the state and three Little Rock-area school districts to phase out the roughly $70 million in annual funding they receive under a 1989 desegregation settlement. The agreement, which would end the payments in 2018, won preliminary approval from the judge in November.
The agreement came after weeks of negotiations between the Little Rock School District and the state, and McDaniel in October had initially called the district’s offer for ending the payments a "non-starter." McDaniel said those comments reflected how apart both sides were when talks began.
"We all wanted to bring about a settlement, and for the first time that included the districts and even Joshua," he said, referring to the patrons known as the Joshua Intervenors. "We all had at least a glint of hope that it was possible, but even when you all want a resolution, we were at that time so far apart."
If ultimately approved, McDaniel said, the agreement will move the state and the schools away from a relationship that he argued has hurt economic development efforts. Instead of focusing on litigation, they’ll be able to focus on working together on education issues, McDaniel said.
"There are serious drawbacks to a constant adversarial relationship between the state and three of its largest school districts, which include the capital city. ... I think it’s time for the state and these school districts to be partners in educating our kids rather than adversaries in court," McDaniel said. "Court litigation is and should be the avenue of last resort."
McDaniel also heralded two lesser-known agreements that his office helped forge during 2013 as major victories. In February, he announced that Arkansas and Oklahoma had agreed to conduct a comprehensive study of phosphorous concentrations in the Illinois watershed.
Another agreement that McDaniel pointed to as a victory was a ruling in March that allows a settlement to move forward between Arkansas and several tobacco companies that signed a 1998 anti-smoking agreement. McDaniel said the new agreement would pave the way for Arkansas to receive its share of more than half of the tobacco settlement money that had been held in escrow for more than a decade.
The agreements came as McDaniel enjoyed a higher profile nationally, as he and U.S. Attorney Chris Thyer sued ExxonMobil Corp. over the ruptured pipeline that spilled thousands of barrels of oil into a Mayflower neighborhood in March.
The attorney general has also spoken out about his concerns about a death penalty system that he says is broken due to lawsuits and a drug shortage have effectively halted executions for the past eight years.
Heading into 2014, McDaniel said his office is preparing for its case before the state Supreme Court defending a $1.2 billion fine levied against Johnson & Johnson and a subsidiary over the marketing of the antipsychotics drug Risperdal. The drug companies have asked the state to overturn the ruling.
He said he also plans to keep the three candidates seeking to succeed him updated on his office’s activities, as he prepares to hand over his office to one of them in 2015.
"I want next year to make sure that the work that goes on in this office is so much more important than any one person or any one incumbent, and when my successor moves in, I want him or her to have every opportunity at success," McDaniel said.
McDaniel said that after leaving office, he plans to practice law. But after dropping a bid for the gubernatorial nomination that many believed was his to lose, he said he’s not taking another look at running for office right now.
"I’m smart enough not to say never. I recognize that you never say never in politics, so I wouldn’t say I’d never run for office again," he said. "I’ve loved this job, and I think I would have enjoyed being governor and I think I would have been a good governor, but if that’s not going to happen, I’m not one of those politicians who’s constantly looking for something to run for."
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