Columns » Ernest Dumas

God and guns, gays and the poor


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Sure, it is presumptuous to assign a place in history for a session of the Arkansas legislature on its final day rather than from some vantage point far into the future, but the 90th General Assembly seems to beg for it.

Although governors and legislative leaders always declare a session a historic triumph for the people, most sessions are simply a triumph of trivia — 1,500 or so new laws that except for the routing of your taxes to government services have little or no material effect on the lives of ordinary people.

Occasionally, a legislative session stands out for some reason. The Ku Klux Klan session of 1923 comes to mind. The Exalted Cyclops of the KKK, a fiery Republican politician, elected a horde of Klan legislators, including the whole Pulaski County delegation, and they got the Klan's business done. The 1958 legislature passed a raft of unconstitutional laws to stop integration and punish sympathizers by making public employees sign loyalty oaths and swear they were not members of subversive groups like the NAACP and ACLU. The session of 1971 passed the largest array of political, social and tax reforms in the 20th century.

I have to stop here and qualify my derogation of the 1923 Klan legislature. It passed one act that would be anathema to Bob Ballinger and other Republican lawmakers today. Act 430 of 1923 prohibited anyone from owning a handgun unless the sheriff gave him permission and he registered it and paid a one-dollar annual tax to the schools. But if you checked "colored" on the gun-registration form the sheriff (in Pulaski County, it was a Klansman and future governor) always concluded that you couldn't own a gun because you were not of good character.

The 2015 legislature will be notable if only for the fact that it was the first in 140 years where the Republican Party was fully in control because it had big majorities in both houses and a friendly check in the executive branch. The session had one objective accomplishment and that was what it did not do. It did not kill the half of Obamacare that insured 225,000 Arkansans, although Republicans had the votes to do it.

Otherwise, it will be known as the session where the resurgent Republican Party converted into law its entire political strategy, commonly known as God, guns, gays and tax relief for the prosperous. It was the legislative session where the always-with-us poor more or less officially became public enemy No. 1.

All the energy and most of the publicity of the 80 days were spent empowering gun owners to carry heat wherever they wanted and protecting the right of businesses and individuals to discriminate against sexual minorities in commerce and hiring. Bigotry, ignorance and superstition, as they always have, rode to victory under the banner of religious freedom. If you believe you're carrying out God's will, that's all that matters. In the South and in border states like Indiana it always works, just as it did with slavery and segregation.

Legislators voted by sizable majorities, with Democratic help and presumably with God's blessing, to erect a monument to the Ten Commandments on the state Capitol grounds, which will be among perhaps a dozen laws that will be struck down for their flouting of the Constitution. The same legislators voted to violate one of the Commandments, Thou Shalt Not Kill, and the deep religious sensibilities of hundreds of thousands of Catholics and other believers, by reinstating the death penalty, which has not been used since 2005 when Mike Huckabee was throwing the switch.

The judicial branch, which takes its cues from the Bill of Rights and the Fourteenth Amendment, will take care of those matters, probably sooner rather than later, but not the economic consequences of the 2015 Assembly.

Since Obamacare was flushing more than a hundred million dollars a year into the state treasury, the legislature in 2013 and 2015 voted to offset it by cutting taxes for manufacturers, other commercial interests and the well-to- do. Governor Hutchinson wanted to cut taxes a little for everyone except the working poor but hold off on much more relief for the very, very rich since (my rationale, but not necessarily his) their overall tax burdens have fallen so sharply the past 35 years. The legislature gave Hutchinson his small middle-class tax cut but extended help also to the rich, by exempting half or more of their unearned investment profits from taxes. If your profits are mammoth enough, you won't owe anything.

Lagniappe for the rich is supposed to make them want to create jobs, and a tiny reduction in marginal tax rates is supposed to make people want to leave California for Arkansas, although there is no evidence that either theory ever works.

When Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) proposed giving the working poor a little relief, too, in the form of Ronald Reagan's tax credits, the legislature bowed its back: not those people! After all, voters raised the minimum wage for the undeserving in November. The lawmakers had already slashed unemployment benefits and the number of weeks that people without work can claim them. Then, in the closing days, they voted to require poor people who get some form of public assistance to submit to drug tests.

This is a legislative session that demands more than a footnote in history.


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