Columns » Max Brantley

Forward Arkansas

Gov. Hutchinson wants to create a state full of people with computer coding skills so we can harvest fruits of the information economy.

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Gov. Hutchinson wants to create a state full of people with computer coding skills so we can harvest fruits of the information economy.

One step forward, but so many steps backward.

A legislative session this week on preserving health care for lower-income working people has cratered. The insurgency has been led by legislators with economic self-interest — family health businesses. Hutchinson's plan also was damaged by the revelation that he relied heavily on a particular health management company for advice — a company that employs a former Republican legislator as a lobbyist.

But health legislation is only about the quality of life (and death) of poor people. What about the young techies? He sends many signals unlikely to resonate with them.

Hutchinson got a lesson late last week at a forum for under-40 business people sponsored by Arkansas Business. Two people who were there told me about an exchange between Hutchinson and a man from Northwest Arkansas. He told the governor that the 2015 legislation to protect those who discriminate against LGBT people had hurt the state. He said job prospects had cited it as a reason not to come to Arkansas.

But wait, the governor said. Ellen DeGeneres praised him in a Twitter post for the "compromise" of the putative religion-protection bill that he helped pass. She was misinformed thanks to news coverage that emphasized the "compromise" over substance. The legislation was marginally better than an original bill, but it preserved legal discrimination against gay people in employment, housing and public accommodation. The ACLU and many others said so at the time. The message got lost in self-backslapping.

Hutchinson said he hoped those who believed the law was damaging would step up and participate in debates in 2017. He didn't volunteer to step up with them. More likely is continued gubernatorial acquiescence to efforts to make our law as punitive as that in North Carolina. (There, PayPal just canceled a 400-job expansion on account of the discrimination law.) Would Asa emulate the Republican Baptist governor of Georgia who said his religious conscience required him to veto a bill that allows discrimination? Hutchinson answered that last year — not in the affirmative.

Hutchinson was also asked at the forum about the state's failure to expand early childhood education.

Many of the brainiacs flocking to San Francisco nowadays would unlikely change course to Arkansas if fully informed of the ideological bent of our governor and legislature. Hutchinson not only stood silently as the legislature discriminated against sexual minorities, he supported stripping medical rights from women with punishing anti-abortion legislation. The legislature practiced medicine on abortion pills used in the first weeks of pregnancy and Hutchinson personally worked to shut down Planned Parenthood, one of the best sources of reliable contraception. He also declined to get in the way of efforts to strip home rule from cities and counties that would like to be oases of nondiscrimination.

Then, this week came reporting in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette on the glacial Internet speeds available in most of Arkansas. The legislature hasn't helped. It passed a law keeping cities out of the broadband business, unless they happen to be one of the few cities that already have a power company. Chattanooga offers a nearby example of the benefits of competition. Between vast private philanthropic investments, private venture capital and a city Internet grid capable of delivering a gigabit per second, it's become a hot city for the young tech heads the governor covets. In Little Rock, we think using poor folks' sales taxes to buy some old buildings (at a nifty profit to the wealthy people who sold them) is the way to create a new-age city

At least after we train new computer coders, they won't have to drive farther than Tennessee to look for work — IF we can continue to afford to train them. The legislature might refuse to continue the Obamacare Medicaid expansion. That would blow a nine-digit hole in the state budget. Then, Toto, we truly are in Sam Brownback's Kansas.

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