Columns » Max Brantley

Asa's blitzkrieg: Cause to gripe

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Gov. Asa Hutchinson (file photo) - BRIAN CHILSON
  • Brian Chilson
  • Gov. Asa Hutchinson (file photo)

A smiling Gov. Asa Hutchinson presided over bill signings Friday in the governor's conference room. The blitzkrieg special session burnished his early image as a seemingly moderate (well, not crazy) and successful leader.

Where many Republicans fought strenuously, but unsuccessfully, to block Gov. Mike Beebe's plan to pump $125 million in corporate welfare into a startup steel mill in Mississippi County, not a single Republican in the House — and only three in the Senate — objected to Hutchinson's plan to give an $87 million handout ($120 million counting interest) to help Lockheed Martin win a bid to build a light armored vehicle in Arkansas. Lockheed's budget dwarfs the state budget. It had announced years ago it would build its plant in Camden. It even closed a plant in supposedly more business-friendly Texas to move the operation to lower-cost Arkansas. No state was bidding for Lockheed's business. But it wanted some kickback from Arkansas.

A consultant — and these consultants rarely find a handout they DON'T like — said it would take 20 years or so for Arkansas to make its money back in taxes on new workers if Lockheed got the bid. It will be three years before production begins, so the loss will be particularly hard-felt in the early years, given a budget tightened by Hutchinson's earlier income tax cut for all but the bottom 40 percent of Arkansas workers.

Some right-wingers, and the Koch-financed Americans for Prosperity, echoed my criticism of the corporate welfare. Government shouldn't be in the business of picking winners and losers, they said. The oddest event of the week was Sen. Tom Cotton's smiling appearance with Hutchinson alongside a prototype vehicle, seeming to tout the project. At the same time, Cotton's former spokesman David Ray, now leading the Koch affiliate in Arkansas, decried such handouts in language much like Cotton himself has often used. A Cotton spokesman later explained to the Arkansas News Bureau that Cotton was merely touting the Arkansas workforce. It would be up to the governor and legislature to make policy decisions, she said. Funny. Cotton normally is happy to invoke principle and declare what policies others should adopt, whether about fighting in the Middle East or invading the sanctity of women's medical decisions. Here, though, he went both ways.

If Lockheed gets the contract, the federal government and federal taxpayers can thank poor Arkansas for contributing OUR tax money to the Pentagon even though, as one reporter put it, the $87 million amounts to a "rounding error" for giant Lockheed. Sometimes companies shake down states just because they can.

Hutchinson also prevailed, where he had not in the regular session, in moving the Republican primary from May to March. The idea is to have a joint Dixie primary anoint the right sort of Republican for president. Mike Huckabee is Hutchinson's pick. There's no evidence beyond that it will 1) add to Arkansas's stature in the election process or 2) increase primary voter participation. There's solid evidence it will lengthen the campaign season, provide advantages to incumbent legislators and complicate buying new voting machines. Rep. Nate Bell of Mena, the Republican firebrand and no soulmate of mine, fought the switch and ultimately declared he was now an independent because of unreasonable party bosses.

Hutchinson also touted some minutia — shuffling of a few tiny state agencies — as small steps that could produce $10 million in savings over five years. Some of the savings are only on paper — elimination of jobs not currently filled. Some savings have already been erased by big raises the governor has given to political appointees. The Bledsoe GOP family alone – senator mother, Health Department father and surgeon general son, are now knocking down nearly a half-million a year in taxpayer pay and benefits thanks to the Hutchinson administration.

But my gripes will be quickly forgotten. The governor called; the legislature answered. Winners write the history.

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