Columns » Ernest Dumas

Lack of leadership, Oaklawn courtship: legislative folly

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It used to be ritual that the governor addressed lawmakers at the end of each regular and emergency session to reassure them that Arkansans were in their debt for again protecting the state from the ravages of fate.

Unless the media failed to recount it, Gov. Mike Beebe had the decency not to do that when the First Extraordinary Session of 2014 adjourned after midnight last Wednesday.

Most emergency sessions are monuments to the legislature's past folly rather than some unforeseen crisis, and this little session had no other cause. Worse, the state and the legislators will very soon, probably this winter, have cause to rue the failings and lack of leadership of this session — failings, incidentally, that the governor must share.

Beebe agreed to call the session to fix three developments that legislators considered critical: a whopping increase in premiums that teachers and other school employees faced this fall to keep their health insurance; prisons and county jails overflowing with state prisoners, and the state lottery's plan to start electronic-monitor gambling. The legislature quickly approved the three fixes and Beebe signed. Let's review.

School health insurance: Because premiums for years had risen so sharply that young and healthier teachers and school workers each year quit the program, premiums for the rest shot upward. They faced a 35 percent hike this fall, steepening the death spiral for the program. To "save" it, a legislative task force proposed lopping off even more employees (part-time workers and spouses who could be covered by their own employer plans) and stealing $4.6 million from starving school districts and giving it to insurance pools for public employees. That way, the average premium increase in the schools this fall might be no more than 3 percent.

The authors of this plan said we need not worry about the people removed from the insurance rolls, who happen to be the ones most desperate for coverage, because many could get covered by Obamacare, either the private Medicaid option for those earning below 138 percent of poverty or the subsidized plans in Obamacare's private market. Without a hint of artifice, the principal author of the fix, Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Gravette, acknowledged that he was also committed to killing the private option when the legislature reconvenes this winter. Only four months ago, the legislature stopped all federal funding to assist Arkansans in getting subsidized coverage in the Obamacare exchange. Well, you can't save everybody.

But the problem all along was that the state treats teachers and other school workers as second-class public employees. It doesn't fund their insurance at anywhere near the same rate that it does "state" employees like legislators. If it did, there would be no crisis.

See, teachers aren't considered state employees but local school workers. The state Constitution says otherwise — it makes public education the foremost financial obligation of the state — and if the lawyers had thought to include it in Lake View v. State the Arkansas Supreme Court would have ordered school insurance subsidies equalized 12 years ago when it told the legislature for the third time that the Constitution really meant what it said, that providing a good and equal school program for all kids was a solemn debt of the state.

Legislators have not wanted to face that because it would jeopardize the tax cuts for corporations and high incomes enacted the past several years, which left no money for education benefits. Also, the public now is supposed to hate coddling government employees.

Jail crowding: Prisons have been packed for years and inmates are backed up in full jails so that county and city police are turning new prisoners loose. The legislature has refused to appropriate money to open new prison units or to build new prisons until local law-enforcement officials finally became insistent. The fix, proposed by Beebe, is to take $6.3 million from a fund for a variety of state agencies this fiscal year and open a vacant prison unit.

This failing goes back to 1977. That year, Arkansas housed roughly 2,500 prisoners and spent $6 million a year controlling them. After episodes of the legislature's getting tough on crime in 1977 and at intervals of about every five years, by lengthening and stacking sentences and adding new crimes to the criminal code, the state inmate population, including those warehoused in local jails, now stands at nearly 19,000 and the annual cost to taxpayers, including supervising parolees, has soared from $6 million to $500 million a year. Arkansas's population has risen a mere 35 percent.

You see the problem. The legislature will be back in January facing the same crisis: rising incarceration, no place to put new inmates and, thanks to last year's tax cuts and plans for new tax cuts, no money to solve this or the school problems.

Electronic gambling: Many legislators wanted to stop the state lottery from starting the electronic quick-draw games, which are supposed to be even more addictive than standard lottery games. But it was not for perfectly appropriate moral reasons, but because the same legislators a year ago allowed online wagering at Oaklawn Jockey Club's casino. Oaklawn lobbyists persuaded legislators they should protect the track's monopoly on electronic betting. The legislature took the usual wimp's course: block Oaklawn's competition until March and declare yourself open for another round of bidding.

Leadership, 2014 style.

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