Columns » Max Brantley

Brave new Arkansas

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U.S. Sen.-elect Tom Cotton image
  • TIM VAHSHOLTZ
  • U.S. Sen.-elect Tom Cotton

Ouch.

I didn't have many winners last Tuesday night.

Let's accentuate the positive. Voters overwhelmingly approved an increase in the state minimum wage. When it rises to $8.50 an hour by 2017, Arkansas might pay more than required by the federal minimum wage, now at $7.25.

Two highly qualified Democratic lawyers, Clarke Tucker of Little Rock and Camille Bennett of Lonoke, survived the Republican surge that increased GOP House seats from 51 to 64.

Sherwood passed a library tax increase.

Ummmmm. I guess that's about it. Arkansas's entire congressional delegation, all seven statewide offices, 64 of 100 House members and 24 of 35 Senators will be Republicans.

Individual candidates such as Tom Cotton, the U.S. Senate winner, and their staffs would love to analyze these results with heroic tales of sophisticated strategy and superior ground games.

I see it more simply. Arkansas is now a party-line Republican state after decades of being a party-line Democratic state — a culmination of many things climaxing with one big one, President Obama. But consider Cotton. Some $32 million was spent to elect him and yet he finished with smaller percentage of the vote than that received by most statewide office winners, whom most voters could not name without a cheat sheet. The racial divide was stark: How does Mark Pryor 344, Tom Cotton 0 in College Station, Ark., strike you?

A significant number of winning Republicans ran on vows to repeal Obamacare. Should that push succeed on the state level, new Gov. Asa Hutchinson's fiscal and management skills will be tested. Further tax cutting will be impossible without big spending cuts. Human services would be first — from sick children to elderly in nursing homes. The pot of money normally sequestered for schools would be ripe for poaching. Growth in university support would be unlikely.

In this, there's potential for minority Democrats to distinguish themselves. Schools once were a popular cause. They didn't triumph for Mike Ross in his losing campaign to Asa Hutchinson, who talked jobs. But schools retain bipartisan support in many parts of the state, so a Democratic push to be a strong voice on Education and Insurance (think teacher health insurance) committees could give them a platform for leadership. They still constitute enough of a minority to be a factor in spending bills.

There's room for Democrats to distinguish themselves, too, in the big election surprise: voter approval of Issue 3. If a pending lawsuit doesn't overturn it, legislators will be able to serve longer and an independent commission (whose members they'll appoint) can give them big pay and expense raises without the necessity of a legislative roll-call vote. I hope the pay raises won't be overly greedy and I particularly hope the commission will end per diem abuse (legislators claim the expense payment even for days they don't go to the Capitol.). It also would be nice to get legislators' spouses off the payroll in pay supplements thinly disguised as office expenses.

I was conflicted on Issue 3 for a variety of reasons (plus dead wrong in thinking it would be defeated). But it contains important ethical changes. It prohibits lobbyist expenditures on legislators and prohibits direct corporate campaign contributions to candidates. Lobbyists are madly searching for loopholes. The loyal opposition could do worse than to battle to prevent loopholes and even strengthen the law.

The partisan numbers will get worse for Democrats before they get better, if the rest of Dixie is an indication. How to go forward? Pick spots where they might influence policies that help people and increase confidence in government. Tall order, I know.

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