Columns » John Brummett

Making sense of legislative divides

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The politics of the Arkansas legislature surely makes little sense to the casual observer. Republican senators vote against one of their own for president pro tem, and for a Democrat, because the senior Republican who is in line for the largely honorary but not powerless position is an occasionally progressive pragmatist more closely aligned over the years with the otherwise Democratic legislative establishment. The young and free-spending state Democratic Party chairman puts out a statement calling on all good Democratic senators to vote against this senior Republican, only to get himself blasted by leading Democratic senators favoring the Republican and who say the young and free-spending state Democratic chairman ought to stay out of legislative politics because legislative politics has nothing to do with parties and the youngster lacks a clue what he’s talking about. Anyway, political parties in Arkansas, both of them, historically haven’t been good for anything except financial irresponsibility and petty spats. The best way to decipher this legislative eccentricity — and this is hardly an original thought, but it’s a worthy guideline that seems to gain credibility steadily — is to look at legislative divisions first as urban or metropolitan vs. rural. Legislators from Northwest Arkansas and Little Rock will tell you that they encounter growing resentment each session, jointly and separately. Rural legislators will tell you the elites of the big cities are trying to lord it over them with seemingly increasing arrogance. They’re pretty much right. All of them. The three biggest, most emotional and most divisive issues of the last two legislative assemblies have been mostly cultural and geographic — city against country. I refer to school consolidation, development next to Little Rock’s water-supply lake and that issue I do my dead-level best to keep stirred up. That’s how to spend surplus money from the General Improvement Fund. I must say “mostly,” not “fully,” only because there’s another factor that can’t be dismissed. It’s resentment by legislative outsiders of legislative insiders, and even more personal. A lot of the warring in the Senate last time came down to the fact that about half the senators resented one senator, Percy Malone of Arkadelphia. He apparently has a heavy hand. We can dismiss that kind of thing as fleeting because term limits will take care of and probably replace any existing personality conflicts. The chasm that sustains, even grows, is the urban-rural one. Bear in mind that I say this as one who lives in Little Rock and writes for a newspaper in Northwest Arkansas. But most of the emotion tends to be on the rural side, and most of the reason on the city side. Rural legislators believe city legislators are trying to close their schools and deny them any capital improvement money for their rural fire departments and community centers. To abandon them, in other words. City legislators — some of the better ones, anyway — are saying the latest Supreme Court ruling requires a more efficient organization of schools and that with pressing needs at the state level, the state’s surplus ought to be used strategically and with state needs as a priority, not divvied up evenly among legislators to take home. The matter of Deltic Timber’s arrogant attempt to pass a state law overpowering Little Rock’s authority to govern its watershed was not without a vengeful factor. The bill passed the Senate easily on the strength of votes from rural senators who hooted when Sen. Jim Argue of Little Rock called for local control. In the preceding session, local control had been the rural battle cry for saving schools. Yes, it was a decidedly rural legislator — House Speaker Bill Stovall of Quitman — who led the opposition to kill that bill in the House. But there’s always an exception that proves a rule. Plus, Stovall was a bosom buddy of Rep. Sam Ledbetter of Little Rock, who has done legal work for Central Arkansas Water. Finally, a speaker, to be a good one, must rise above his own district’s parochialism.

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