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Diamonds in the manure of the Arkansas legislature

Some legislators and legislation shone.

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The big one

The legislature got lots of things very wrong but managed against long odds to get the biggest issue right. Hundreds of thousands of low-income Arkansans will gain health insurance thanks to the supermajority that accepted the federal Medicaid expansion (routed through private insurance companies via the so-called "private option"). Three Republicans stood up for common sense (at least once the "private option" emerged) against those in their party more interested in ideological rigidity than what was best for the state. Sen. David Sanders (R-Little Rock) was the group's big-picture idea man; Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) their detail-oriented policy whiz; Rep. John Burris (R-Harrison) their preternaturally talented pitchman. They outworked, out-researched, outdebated, and outhustled all comers (among many highlights, Burris and Sanders at a Saline County town hall trouncing a former Romney healthcare advisor — flown in as a hired gun by anti-expansion Americans for Prosperity the night before the big vote — was a sight to behold). We disagree with them on just about everything else but they deserve applause for the Herculean task of getting Republicans on board with doing the right thing. Equally important, Democrats were united in support of expansion from the get-go, and leaders like Rep. Greg Leding of Fayetteville and Sen. Paul Bookout of Jonesboro were vital not just in keeping the caucus together but in keeping them quiet during the expansion debate — biting your tongue ain't easy, but any voices from the left were liable to spook wobbly Republicans. We sometimes had doubts about the party's strategy during the session as they held their powder on just about every issue, but they brought home the big one.

More expansion heroes

Also deserving props for their role in the expansion debate: Rep. Reginald Murdock (D-Marianna) and Rep. Joe Jett (D-Success) played key behind-the-scenes roles for the Democrats on both policy and politics; Fayetteville Republican Rep. Charlie Collins (smart enough to realize that expansion will add money to the state's coffers, which creates more wiggle room for the tax cuts Collins is obsessed with) was a tireless advocate for expansion, obsessively working the phones, town halls, and Capitol hallways with his psychedelic "Charnalogies" (it's like a Rubik's cube, like the grieving process, like rheostat lights); House Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) and Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux (R-Russellville) might not be moderates in any typical sense of the word but they were sane and effective leaders who managed to climb the supermajority mountain. Finally, just a footnote, but a thank you to Rep. Sue Scott (R-Rogers), for being one of the only legislators to inject the human element into the debate — from her speech on the House floor: "When I look at the numbers, I see faces with those numbers."

Small environmental victories

Sen. David Johnson (D-Little Rock) managed to get two energy-efficiency laws passed. One allows for the creation of energy improvement districts to help fund home or business energy efficiency projects with low-interest loans. This means less demand for power and water by residential, commercial and industrial properties, via the PACE (property-assessed clean energy) program, which allows property owners to finance energy improvements through their property tax assessments. The other law allows state agencies to use maintenance and operations dollars to finance energy cost-saving contracts, which should help the state save money by lowering utility costs.

Speech of the session

Simple decency was hard to come by this session but Rep. Deborah Ferguson (D-West Memphis) could be counted on to deliver. Serving on a Public Health committee dominated by know-nothing grandstanding, Ferguson often managed to gently steer the conversation toward medical facts. On the House floor, she gave the best speech of the session, during the debate over a resolution to reaffirm the Defense of Marriage Act, with Republicans (and no doubt some Democrats, there was no roll call) standing athwart history. "With liberty and justice for all," Ferguson began. "We say that every day. We don't say some, we say all." Yes, the resolution itself was meaningless, but the brand of ugliness for its own sake on display needed to be called out — Ferguson did it with both passion and compassion, grounded in knowledge of the past and hopeful for the future. "We all possess the ability to love, to love people as they are," she said. "This resolution is hurtful, to our sons and daughters and an entire community... I see it as an opportunity for Arkansas to stand on the right side of civil rights. Arkansas has too many times stood on the wrong side of history. Not just the losing side, but the wrong side."

Citizen advocacy

Ferguson also deserves praise for her role in coming to the rescue with amendments to a body-modification bill that turned it from a nonsensical ban to reasonable regulation. After Sen. Missy Irvin's (R-Mountain View) "ew gross" dismissal of people interested in body modification, Ferguson's tolerant approach was a breath of fresh air. ("Everyone has a different idea of beauty but we should try to ensure that it's done safely. ... I'm not for banning anything. ... It's not a fringe practice — it's a natural desire to create meaning and beauty in the world.") To their credit, the opposition of arch conservatives Rep. Nate Bell (R-Mena) and Sen. David Sanders also helped turn the tide on Irvin's nanny-state bill. The biggest difference maker, though, was the citizen advocacy of local tattoo and body-modification artists. They flooded legislators with emails and calls and came to meetings to speak clearly and eloquently against the ban. In local politics, half the battle is showing up, and a group without much political clout made their voices heard.

Freshman of the session

Former Times staffer Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) was chosen as chairman of the House freshman caucus and emerged as the strongest liberal voice in the House. His ethics reform bill was imperfect but making even incremental progress on that front was an impressive accomplishment with this crew in charge. His alternative progressive tax-cut bill served as pushback against the windfall-for-the-rich approach of Collins and Carter. The Republicans won the day but adopted at least a small increase in the standard deduction from Sabin's proposal, and Sabin helped to highlight the nastily regressive approach of the GOP.

Noble in defeat

In another legislature, or perhaps in another time, Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) would be a lion. Here in Arkansas her role is to stand proudly for what is right, even when the cause is hopeless. Her efforts to abolish the death penalty, to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment and to require a racial impact statement for any bills creating a new offense were all, of course, defeated. We thank her for them still. A bit less hopeless: Her bill to offer in-state college tuition to undocumented immigrant students who've graduated from Arkansas high schools will languish in interim study, but it may have enough legs to make it through next time around.

We disagree with them on almost everything but ...

Rep. Duncan Baird (R-Lowell) walks the walk on ethics reform (he's one of the only legislators who unilaterally refuses to accept gifts from lobbyists) and his honest approach and quiet competence were welcome in his role as House Chair of Joint Budget. Sen. Johnny Key (R-Mountain Home) got enabling legislation passed for after-school and summer pilot programs; though it was swallowed up by tax cuts and never appropriated, it's a start. Key was also a co-sponsor of the DREAM act, Elliott's bill to offer in-state tuition to undocumented high school graduates.

Could have been worse!

No anti-immigrant legislation was filed and other than a meaningless resolution, the legislature's bullies left the LGBT community alone. Bills to strangle state spending, to end government regulation as we know it, to defund Planned Parenthood, to raid the state's revenue for the highway department, to cap jury awards in civil cases and to dismantle public education all failed to pass. Ditto to a couple of bills that would have been extremely costly and extremely ineffective, but would have satisfied the Republican itch to pick on recipients of public assistance: biometric smart cards for Medicaid beneficiaries (the Voter ID of healthcare) and drug testing for unemployment beneficiaries (no drug testing for legislators, natch). Before you breathe a sigh of relief at all of these bullets dodged, remember that for a group of mischief makers this determined, there's always next year.

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