Columns » Max Brantley

Health care and the tech park

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Major developments in two favorite topics this week:

HEALTH CARE: The U.S. Supreme Court upheld Obamacare. This only guarantees a continued pitched battle by the Republican Party at the national and state level to undo it.

If they can win a majority in Congress, Republicans will vote to repeal it. Short of that, Republicans will try every trick to block increased federal spending on the program.

In Arkansas, the ultimate battle is really quite simple. The health exchanges to provide affordable insurance coverage will move forward under federal guidance in Arkansas. There's nothing the state legislature can do to stop that.

But Republicans need not even take control of the legislature to kill a huge part of Obamacare — the expansion of Medicaid to more of the working poor. It's a free benefit worth hundreds of millions to the state the first three years. The state will eventually pay a small match, gradually rising to 10 percent in 2020.

The money will cover 200,000 to 250,000 Arkansans without insurance or with very little. It will save rural hospitals. It will prevent more expensive illnesses. It will ease the hidden tax on paying patients of uncompensated care. It will stimulate the Arkansas economy and the health of its people, notably children.

Because the legislature can't spend money without appropriating it, it would take only 26 Republicans in the House or 9 in the Senate to block this enormous benefit to Arkansas working people.

Common good versus greed. Simple choice. Is Arkansas as good as France? Does it believe in a shared responsibility for universal health coverage? Or does it prefer every man for himself? Gov. Mike Beebe clearly leans toward an expansion of service for Arkansans and compassion for the state's people. Do Republicans?

TECHNOLOGY PARK: I remain skeptical about the Little Rock Technology Park concept. I think brains and venture capital are better development tools than a spec office building.

But voters indirectly approved spending $22 million and elected officials seem determined to move forward. If so, the project should not go forward at the cost of bulldozing hundreds of residential houses, even in a marginal neighborhood, as Tech Park backers seem to prefer. Bitter experience tells us that urban renewal, at best, only relocates blight. It sometimes also creates new wastelands.

The hand-picked group of Little Rock Regional Chamber of Commerce-influenced insiders who are running the show should stop, look and listen to other locations. This week came an idea to put the project on largely derelict commercial ground to the south of the Clinton Library and Heifer International. The core is 10 acres once intended for a new home for World Services for the Blind. That project isn't to be built. The property could be acquired for $3.6 million, far less than residential home acquisition cost in the Oak Forest neighborhood and without evictions. Additional underused property is available for expansion. The land sits alongside Interstate 30, where a tech park would be a high profile addition to the billion-dollar redevelopment that area has already seen.

The happening River Market neighborhood is a better spot for synergy with tech types. The density of high-rise development and multiple attractions, plus a core of existing tech workers at Acxiom, have been boons elsewhere, such as a now vibrant but once forlorn area of London.

Downtown is a short freeway hop to Arkansas Children's Hospital and UAMS. It's just a few minutes farther via freeway and four-lane city street to UALR. Locating there also would end a divisive community debate that won't be resolved short of a courtroom.

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