Casting a wide net in business and a career that spanned over half a century, Benjamin "Business Ben" Laney was Arkansas's 33rd Governor. But his contributions to the state did not stop with his time in office. In the opinion of this scholar, Laney's public legacy was threefold: creation of what would become the modern state budgeting system; the construction of the state's first Governor's Mansion; and the beginning the transition from State House to museum for Arkansas's original capitol building
Born in the Jones Chapel community of Ouachita County into a family that would include eleven children, Laney’s father, who was a moderately successful farmer, saw six of his children earn college degrees, which was a rarity in those days. The example Ben's father set regarding thrift and responsibility left a lasting impression that would later influence Laney's fiscal policies. While he did not finish high school, Laney passed the entrance exam and attended Hendrix College in Conway, where he was an honor student, and taught school for three years. Laney would then earn his A.B. degree from Arkansas State Normal School (later the University of Central Arkansas) in 1924 with the goal of becoming a college history professor. He took graduate classes at Utal State University, but never completed his degree. He also would serve in the Navy from 1918 to 1919 Laney married Lucille Kirtley, the daughter of a Lewisville businessman, in 1926, and after oil was discovered on the Laney family farm in Ouachita County in 1922, the young family moved to Camden from Conway in 1927.
The Laney business network expanded with his oil wealth: cotton gins and cottonseed oil mills, farming, banking, along with feed, grocery and hardware stores. With a degree of independence due to his financial security, Laney decided to enter politics, winning a special election for Mayor of Camden in 1935. Declining reelection in 1938, he was appointed by Governor Homer Adkins to the Arkansas Penitentiary Board in 1941. He actively supported candidates like his friend and fellow Camden resident Senator John McClellan, hoping to become better known outside his region. He stayed on the penitentiary board until he announced for governor in 1944.
The forty-eight-year-old Laney’s chances were not hurt by the fact that much of the state’s political talent had gone off to war. When the ticket closed in the Democratic primary, he would face State Comptroller J. Bryan Sims and former Congressman David D. Terry. Laney touted his business experience against Sims’s charge that Laney had inherited his wealth. Laney and Terry in turn hit Sims with the charge of using the State Police in “Gestapo tactics” against their campaigns. Laney ran a largely amateurish campaign and characterized himself as “conservative yet progressive,” and called for preserving “old-fashioned Americanism.” Laney led the ticket in the first primary with Sims only 7,500 votes behind. Outraged at Sims’s tactics, Terry went to Laney’s camp. About a week after the first primary, Sims abruptly withdrew, acknowledging that Terry’s endorsement of Laney made it impossible for him to prevail in the runoff. Laney then romped to a victory of over eighty percent in November over a weak Republican challenger.
Laney campaigned on three themes: efficiency, economy, and consolidation, and once sworn in, lost no time in implementing them into his legislative program. His chief priority was creating a system of making all appropriations from a single prioritized general fund. State services had long suffered from the practice of breaking down tax revenues into 109 smaller accounts. That system robbed state government of the flexibility of shifting funds in response to changing conditions. In February 1945, the governor and his chief fiscal advisers, Julian Hogan and Frank Storey, submitted what would become the Revenue Stabilization Act of 1945 to the General Assembly. Not only was the plan promoted as a way to provide predictability on the revenue side, but also to pay off the state’s nonhighway debt, abolish the state property tax, provide emergency reserves, and provide a measure of security for state services against future economic downturns. The public's support for the measure was outstanding as was the enthusiasm of the legislature and so, not surprisingly, the initiative passed both houses with only one dissenting vote. Some feared that the system was so businesslike and politics-free that it could not last, yet it thrives to the present day, giving Arkansas one of the most stable fiscal structures in the nation. It is largely accepted as Laney’s chief gubernatorial legacy.
More efficiencies were pushed through by Laney. The corporation and utilities commissions were combined into a single public service commission and created a new streamlined fiscal control board to replace the work of ten competing boards. Laney also reorganized the state police. He also persuaded lawmakers to create a new Arkansas Resources and Development Commission to consolidate duplicative boards responsible for the development of resources and to encourage industrialization. A result of this effort was a committee of business leaders headed by C. Hamilton Moses, President of Arkansas Power & Light, that produced the “Arkansas Plan,” a cooperative effort at several levels toward sowing the seeds of economic development. This effort laid the groundwork for the larger effort in the 1950s led by New York expatriate and future governor Winthrop Rockefeller.
Winning by a two-to-one margin in the 1946 primary, tax reform would be the Governor’s emphasis in the 1947 General Assembly. The plan included increases in the sales and income taxes and cuts in the inheritance tax, and finally accomplished the goal of abolishing the state property tax that was begun in 1945, leaving this revenue source for local governments and school districts. Laney resisted calls for increased fuel taxes for highways, although he knew that the state’s roads could not wait forever. The chief issue that held Laney back on this need was the shadow cast by over $100 million in highway bonds that had defaulted in 1933 and had only been refunded in 1941. In his drive for further reorganization and efficiency measures, Laney also supported a measure that created the Arkansas Legislative Council, which in turn hired a research director and could make recommendations when the legislature was out of session. Laney’s pro-business and anti-union bent manifested itself during the session when he signed Act 101, which was the enforcement mechanism for Amendment 34, Arkansas’s “right-to-work” law. Laney’s record of success laid to rest the long-held adage that Governors were “dictators in the first term and spectators in the second.” Laney’s easy accessibility to legislators and meticulous planning were credited with making this possible.
Laney’s legacy also included three long-desired capital priorities that Arkansans enjoy to this day. The first was War Memorial Stadium, for which legislation was passed in 1947 to select a site, issue bonds, and proceed with construction. Large numbers of Arkansas Razorback football games would be played there in subsequent years. The second was a new Governor’s Mansion. In 1883, the legislature had authorized the payment of $500 in rent per year for the chief executive’s residence, which had never been changed. Laney said that the lack of an official residence was an embarrassment to the state, and in 1947, he persuaded legislators to provide funds for construction of an official residence. Laney, Representative Bob Riley, and the women’s groups that had fought to save the Old State House, formed a highly effective coalition that succeeded in passing the measures that would be paired with the mansion bill that began the Old State House’s transition to the statehood showplace that is a source of pride for Arkansans.
The last months of Laney’s term were marred by his response to the early civil rights movement. Laney had publicly opposed President Harry Truman’s call for an anti-lynching law, and by 1948 he was firmly in the camp of the southern “Dixiecrat” faction calling for Truman’s defeat. He had already decided not to seek a third term as governor, and he was active among the southerners that had bolted the regular Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, serving as the third party’s chairman. It had been assumed that Laney would be the running mate of third-party nominee Strom Thurmond, but he declined, concluding that the campaign could not succeed. Despite Laney’s efforts, the Dixiecrats polled a distant third in Arkansas.
Laney remained politically active after his term while returning to his business interests. He made an attempt to unseat his successor, Sid McMath, in 1950, accusing him of “socialistic” tendencies, and was crushed by the incumbent. While objecting to federal support of civil rights, he disapproved of Governor Orval Faubus’s calling out of the National Guard at Central High School in 1957. Laney’s last public service was as a delegate to the Arkansas Constitutional Convention of 1969-70. After several years managing Winthrop Rockefeller’s rice farms in the 1960s, he retired to Magnolia, where he died on January 21, 1977. Laney is considered the father of the modern revenue system in Arkansas as well as making great strides in creating a modern government structure. His later support of the Dixiecrats became an unfortunate postscript of an otherwise highly successful tenure as the state’s chief executive.
Author: Revis Edmonds
Editors: Rae Ann Fields, Mandy Shoptaw, Jimmy Bryant
Sources: If you enjoyed this article, you may enjoy some of Revis' favorite sources...
Timothy P. Donovan, Willard P. Gatewood Jr, and Jeannie M. Whayne, The Governors of Arkansas: Essays in Political Biography (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1995)
Tom Forgey, “Benjamin Travis Laney Jr. (1896–1977); Thirty-third Governor (1945–1949).” Encyclopedia of Arkansas https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/benjamin-travis-laney-jr-111/
John P. Gill, Open House: The Arkansas Governor’s Mansion and Its Place in History (Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2010)
Jon Kennedy: Look Back and Laugh: 38 Years of Arkansas Political Cartoons (Little Rock: The Pioneer, 1979)
Mary L. Kwas, A Pictorial History of Arkansas’s Old State House: Celebrating 175 Years (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2011)
M. Melissa Laney, “Forgotten But Not Forgiven: The Legacy of Governor Ben T. Laney.” (MA Thesis, University of Arkansas at Little Rock, 2009)
Jeannie M. Whayne, Thomas A. DeBlack, George Sabo III, and Morris S. Arnold, Arkansas: A Narrative History (Fayetteville, University of Arkansas Press, 2013)
C. Fred Williams, S. Charles Bolton, Carl H. Moneyhon, and LeRoy
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 Donovan, et.al, The Governors of Arkansas, 203.
 Jon Kennedy: Look Back and Laugh: 38 Years of Arkansas Political Cartoons (Little Rock: The Pioneer, 1979), 138.
 Donovan, et.al, The Governors of Arkansas, 204.
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 “Balanced Budget. Weighted Advantage.” Arkansas Economic Development Commission Webpage. https://www.arkansasedc.com/why-arkansas/business-climate/financial-stability
 C. Fred Williams, “Arkansas Freedom to Work Law,” in C. Fred Williams, S. Charles Bolton, Carl H. Moneyhon, and LeRoy Williams, eds. A Documentary History of Arkansas (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1984), 286-88.
 Donovan, et.al, The Governors of Arkansas, 207.
 John P. Gill, Open House: The Arkansas Governor’s Mansion and Its Place in History (Little Rock: Butler Center Books, 2010), 1.
 Mary L. Kwas, A Pictorial History of Arkansas’s Old State House: Celebrating 175 Years (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2011), 92-93.
 Whayne, et. al., Arkansas: A Narrative History, 380.
 Charlie Daniels, Secretary of State, ed. Historical Report of the Secretary of State 2008 (Little Rock: Arkansas Secretary of State and Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2008), 585.
 Donovan, et.al, The Governors of Arkansas, 209.
 Tom Forgey, “Benjamin Travis Laney Jr. (1896–1977); Thirty-third Governor (1945–1949).” Encyclopedia of Arkansas https://encyclopediaofarkansas.net/entries/benjamin-travis-laney-jr-111/ (Updated January 25, 2017)