Columns » John Brummett

How to base your governor’s vote

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For all of Asa Hutchinson’s talk about abortion, gays and immigration, our next governor will have little to do with those. Should a role arise for the governor on any of them, Hutchinson and Mike Beebe would do the same thing.

If the federal courts turn abortion back to the states, we would find our operative response not from the governor’s office, but in our state Constitution. The voters approved an amendment years ago to make a protection of the unborn the policy of the state. State courts would decide the full meaning of that.

The next General Assembly will pass legislation to prohibit gays from being foster parents. Either of these candidates will sign it. State courts will decide that one, too.

In the event of a genuine and significant immigration issue at the Legislature — such as the bill by Jim Holt to charge with a crime any state official extending services to an undocumented person and not turning in the illegal immigrant for deportation — both Beebe and Hutchinson would resist. Even Hutchinson has said his running mate’s bill would preclude the state’s ability to act as a “good Samaritan.”

The candidates disagree on whether to get State Police officers deputized as federal immigration agents. Either way, legislators will resist the idea, as they did last time, on advice of already overworked law enforcement personnel managing already overcrowded detention facilities.

On what, then, should voters base their decision? First, there’s tax and fiscal policy. Both candidates want to take the opportunity of a robust surplus to eliminate the sales tax on groceries — Hutchinson all at once and Beebe in phases taking into account needs.

Here’s the problem with doing it all at once. We are under court order to spend hundreds of millions more for school facilities. Medicaid is the very underwriter of health care in a poor rural state, and health care costs are rising. For every Medicaid bill, the federal government pays approximately three dollars and the state one. The federal government simply writes checks on a line of credit; state government is barred by its own law from deficit spending and must actually have the money.

If the state runs short, federal money is left on the table and somebody — a disabled person, a nursing home patient, a sick child — loses assistance for a genuine human need.

Beebe’s way, which is to make sure we keep enough money to tend to needs and bring the sales tax down on groceries incrementally, offers the right balance between fairer taxes and essential services.

Having led the state Legislature for two decades, Beebe simply has a greater awareness of, and sensitivity to, budget reality. The policy “wonkness” that lost him the third debate would make him a more responsible governor.

Second, there’s public education policy.

Hutchinson talks about “flexible standards” to keep rural schools open. He suggests using technology for “distance learning,” meaning Webcasting and such, to fill in gaps for districts with insufficient numbers of students to hire and equip physics and chemistry teachers and labs, for example.

Beebe eschews further consolidation, too. But he talks about rigid standards enforcement regardless of school location or size and about using distance learning for individual needs — such as a youngster who has a scheduling conflict — rather than as a wholesale substitute for good ol’ live classroom interaction.

Again, Beebe’s way is more responsible.

Finally, there are the appearances of ethics and independence.

Beebe’s best friends are poultry, utility and freelance business lobbyists. It’s fair to point out that they were his friends before they became business lobbyists.

Hutchinson has been a lobbyist himself at the federal level and has cashed in his federal public service in a way that could raise conflicts as governor.

And when it comes to ethics, or maybe the word is decency, you have to wonder about a guy like Hutchinson who would air a television commercial using little kids to call his opponent names.

So, here’s the score: Beebe 2, Hutchinson 0, with one factor tied.

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