Columns » Max Brantley

How bad was the 90th Arkansas General Assembly?

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LEADERSHIP: Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang with Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam and Gov. Asa Hutchinson image
  • Brian Chilson
  • LEADERSHIP: Senate President Pro Tem Jonathan Dismang with Speaker of the House Jeremy Gillam and Gov. Asa Hutchinson.

I can't improve on Ernest Dumas' summary of the 2015 legislature last week, written several days before the concluding drama over the question of just how much Arkansas will continue to allow legal discrimination against gay people.

(Answer: Discrimination remains fully legal, whether in housing, employment or public accommodation.)

The legislature glorified God (at least the vengeful, discriminatory version of the deity worshipped by dominant Republicans), guns and rich people.

The poor may be blessed in the Bible that right-wing Republicans love to thump, but in the halls of the Capitol, the poor were cursed.

Alone among Arkansas taxpayers, the working poor who make less than $21,000 a year didn't get a tax break from Gov. Asa Hutchinson. They did get a reduction in benefits should they lose their jobs. Some of them will be made to pee in a cup to obtain government assistance.

Well-to-do Arkansans got a big tax break — a 33 percent reduction in the top tax rate on capital gains. The very wealthiest taxpayers got the biggest tax break of all — a total exemption on profits of more than $10 million. Perhaps a dozen or so Arkansans will realize hundreds of thousands in tax cuts thanks to this, while the poor get nothing.

The children of the poor will have a harder time going to college, too, thanks to changes in the lottery scholarship.

The legislature, nominally opposed to big government spending, has proposed, too, to take the cap off government borrowing to provide industrial corporate welfare. This measure also, if approved by voters, will restore taxpayer welfare payments to chambers of commerce that lobby against working men and women.

The lawmakers didn't forget to care for themselves. Only Rep. John Walker (D-Little Rock) stood as a matter of conscience against the 150 percent pay raise legislators received thanks to trickery sent to voters in a misleading constitutional amendment in 2014.

That amendment declared that it would be "barring gifts from lobbyists to certain state officials." Result: A day rarely passed without free meals and drinks for legislators from lobbyists. Special interests also laundered money through the Republican Party to throw royal banquets for House and Senate leaders. In the legislature's final hours, lawmakers approved additional "reform" legislation that will make it just about impossible to find an illegal gift offense or campaign reporting violation by a legislator — they'll get mulligans to make amends when caught. This "reform" also legalized free lobby-provided eats and drinks, both in state and on junkets.

Progressive members of the legislature tried but mostly failed to accomplish much. Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) came close to passing paid maternity leave for state workers and a small cleanup to a campaign law that allows candidates to participate in secret dark money advertising. It was remarkable 1) that these ideas could be viewed negatively and 2) that Tucker came close to passing them. Republicans were under marching orders to kill anything important from promising Democrats.

Democrats played some successful defense, particularly with a concentration of members on select committees. A shameful exception was Sen. David Burnett (D-Osceola) who, in a Faustian bargain with Gov. Hutchinson, cleared passage of the anti-gay "conscience protection" bill. Had the bill died in committee, the state would have been spared the last-minute drama over a substitute bill that still proclaims Arkansas a state where personal prejudice is more powerful than equal treatment under the law.

Too often, the 77-year-old civil rights lion John Walker rose on the floor of the House as the lonely voice of conscience. At least he was allowed to speak. In some committees, opposing voices were squelched at key moments.

The damage toll of punishing legislation that flew under the radar is not yet fully tallied. Bad as this legislature was, the fear persists that things could get worse.

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