It’s a pretty self-satisfied bunch out at the Capitol these days. Call it the era of good feelings.
Gov. Mike Huckabee had difficult relations with legislators, both in his party and out. He liked to call the shots. He wasn’t much of a negotiator. Working majorities joined him on a number of important legislative issues, but many lawmakers felt he rushed to claim not just more credit than he was due, but all the credit.
Gov. Mike Beebe has been, to many, a breath of fresh air. He’s spent a lifetime in the legislature negotiating, not dictating. He could host “Let’s Make a Deal.” He understands the system. He can manipulate it without being seen as manipulative. He’s not a quip waiting to happen, so he avoids unplanned ingestions of shoe leather.
He won a huge victory over Asa Hutchinson. He entered office with a surplus of nearly $1 billion. Even after meeting the demands of the Lake View school legislation, there’s still plenty of money to go around, including for some of the not-so-worthy ideas that spring readily from the legislature.
Since Beebe had no particular agenda — save knocking a few cents off the tax on food — or any evident core principles, it was easy for the legislature to work with the governor. There’s money to spend. Taxes have been cut. What’s not to like?
From my point of view, there are reasons to be less than satisfied. The Republicans, despite smaller numbers, have greater power thanks to a spoils system that has rewarded them richly with clout in both House and Senate in return for their votes in leadership elections. It’s gotten so bad that a Joint Budget subcommittee wasted a day of hearings on Rep. Jim Medley’s idea to cut 12 permanent jobs and five temporary jobs from the staff of the Arkansas Supreme Court, including the chief justice’s own secretary. It was a petty, transparent payback for court rulings limiting legislative pork spending and the Lake View case.
Republicans have pushed worse ideas, with little vigorous pushback from what should be a powerful governor’s office, if only it wasn’t so fearful to give offense. There’s Sen. Shawn Womack’s mean-spirited bill to prevent gay people from adopting or fostering children, even blood relatives. There’s Sen. Shawn Womack’s bill to further enrich the private residential facilities for troubled youth, such as the Lord’s Ranch, supplier of jet service to Gov. Huckabee, with favored state licensing and reimbursement treatment. (The Lord’s Ranch, naturally, has greased the palms of legislators on committees that consider this bill.) There’s Shawn Womack’s constitutional amendment to legalize pork barrel spending and make taxes impossible to raise with a 75 percent vote requirement.
There’s silliness galore. The usual drug hysteria. Efforts to curb free speech. An unwillingness to vote for better legislative ethical standards. A free pass for the payday lender piranhas, people who make Shylock look benevolent. Corporate welfare galore. An educational system sold to the silver-spoon-sucking spawn of discount store barons.
Again this year, the historically rambunctious House has offered the occasional bow to responsibility, on account of sounder leadership, the Senate being primarily about greed and right-wing social issues. What’s been missing, when it counts, is the governor. He’s content to let things work out as they will and sign whatever reaches him. It’s a good way to guarantee that a lot of bad stuff hits your desk.