Columns » Warwick Sabin

Opposites attract

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The formal coalitions in the Arkansas Senate — the “Brotherhood” versus the “Otherhood” — are well-documented.

More interesting, however, are some accidental alliances in the state House of Representatives that cut across partisan and ideological divisions.

Of course, party affiliation has always been a less significant factor in the Arkansas legislature, where Democrats traditionally far outnumber Republicans.

Still, less than a month into the new session, a bipartisan group of lawmakers — mostly younger than average — has united several times to oppose certain bills. They stand out not only because they form a distinct minority, but also because they represent the outer ends of the ideological spectrum.

“I think it really comes down to both sides, the far right and the far left, voting together,” said state Rep. Jon Woods, a conservative Republican from Springdale who finds himself among the ad hoc mavericks. “It seems out of the ordinary to most people.”

Yet it happened on HB1072, which would regulate “cyberbullying” by extending public school jurisdiction to students’ home computers. Democrats Steve Harrelson and Lindsley Smith joined Republicans Aaron Burkes, Ed Garner, Dan Greenberg, Michael Lamoureux and Woods in voting against it, citing potential infringements on civil liberties.

A similar coalition emerged on HB1318, which allowed a tax credit for purchasing and transporting excess poultry litter from Northwest Arkansas. United in opposition were Democrats Will Bond, David Johnson and Smith, and Republicans Burkes, Greenberg, Bryan King and Woods.

Perhaps the oddest occurrence was when Burkes and Smith — arguably the most conservative and liberal members, respectively — were the only two House members to cast no votes on HB1202, which effectively reduced the tax on off-road diesel fuel.

You might expect Smith to be against such a tax cut. But Burkes?

“As a Republican and a small-government guy, it’s hard for me to defend any tax,” Burkes told me. “But anytime you give a tax break to a particular narrow interest [row crop farmers in this case], you make it more difficult to get widespread general tax reductions down the road.”

Plus, he said, “Of all the taxes there are to cut, this is the worst one, because when you consider our environmental problems, like greenhouse gases, this essentially subsidizes the use of petroleum by giving a special break to farmers who are using this. … The best taxes are the ones that discourage consumption that creates externalities, like pollution.”

A conservative, environmentally conscious tax philosophy? Now that’s interesting.

It also may be an indication that traditional right-left approaches to governing are being redefined.

“I consider it more a libertarian streak,” said Lamoureux, a Pope County Republican. “When it comes to free speech and government openness, Dan [Greenberg] and I, although conservative in other areas — if you call free speech and open government a liberal idea — we would be right there with Steve [Harrelson].”

That Harrelson is occasionally part of this minority coalition is unusual, considering that the Texarkana Democrat is literally the House majority leader. “It’s probably a different breed of legislator,” Harrelson says of the unofficial group’s membership. “We have a lot in common, and we see a lot of the issues the same.”

One thing they definitely share is a willingness to defy the prevailing culture in the House. Every legislator interviewed for this column expressed frustration with the unprofessional tendency among their colleagues to make everything personal.

“I think there is an instant pressure to be for things unless you have an extremely good reason to be against them,” Lamoureux said. “I find myself going up to committee members and apologizing and letting them know it wasn’t personal, when really we should assume it’s not personal.”

Harrelson agrees. “That is one of the things that really disappoints me. There is somewhat of that phenomenon and some paranoia that if you don’t vote for their bill, they think it’s something deeper than what it actually is.”

“People are very reluctant to go against their friend’s bill,” Woods said. “There are a lot of nice people and a lot of the bills I voted against are by people I like very much. But there is a reluctance among members of the House to vote against a bill, period.”

In some ways, you wouldn’t expect the youngest legislators to be so detached and businesslike as their older colleagues look after each other’s feelings. But Woods has an explanation.

“Maybe the younger generation, having grown up in Arkansas and having seen governors come and go, and for our state to be in the same position we are in — that is a great tool of motivation for me,” he said. “Do I want to play around down here? No. Do I just want to go along and say yes on everything and chalk up the experience? No.”

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