As always, the legislature has much to do, and much not to. Distinguishing the one from the other has often been a problem. Term limits, which have removed the longtime legislators who lent experience and judgment to the lawmaking process, have increased the chance for error.
The new governor can be of considerable help in accentuating the positive and eliminating the negative. Mike Beebe served 20 years in the legislature, was one of its most influential members, and his influence was generally used for good, or semi-good. He knows how to talk to legislators and presumably will seek them out, as Gov. Bill Clinton did. (Beebe’s immediate predecessor, Gov. Mike Huckabee, avoided mixing with legislators, who seemed not to mind.)
But Beebe bears watching too. (Even though the Arkansas Times endorsed him against a substandard opponent.) As a senator, he was good friends with agents of the special interests, and he’s chosen as his chief of staff Morril Harriman, a former senatorial ally and more recently a lobbyist for the Arkansas Poultry Federation. Our most vivid memory of Harriman is from a couple of years ago, when he helped win passage of “tort reform” legislation that benefited the poultry industry, the insurance companies and the medical profession, and penalized working-class Arkansans. Being on the public payroll may revive a commitment to the public interest.
The legislature and the governor will spend a great deal of time trying to bring the public school system up to constitutional standards, a difficult task made more so by the fact that nobody knows exactly what the constitutional standards are. Whatever is required will cost money, and limit legislative initiatives in other areas.
High on the list of things not to do is to help Deltic Timber Company with its plans for development on Lake Maumelle, development that could endanger Central Arkansas’s water supply. Deltic’s senator, Bob Johnson, pushed a pro-development bill through the Senate two years ago. That legislation was stopped by a House committee, but the mischievous Johnson might well try again.
Tax reform, on the other hand, is much to be desired. Adoption of a state earned income tax credit, similar to the federal government’s, and an increase in the amount of income a family can have before it starts paying taxes, would help low-income Arkansas workers and would make the regressive Arkansas tax system less regressive. The state needs to prohibit the use of cell phones by drivers, while any of us are still alive, and to adopt a substantive law punishing cruelty to animals, while any of them are. Powerful interests will resist in both cases.
And it’s not too early to consider undoing tort reform. Unlike the organized lobbies, injured Arkansans aren’t asking for preferential treatment. They’re asking for justice.