Columns » John Brummett

Perilous provisional plaudits

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One who praises an unfinished Arkansas legislative session does so at his own peril.

Religion and state could still get mixed. Privacy could get invaded. Micro-management could abound. Predatory payday lenders could be protected on the outrageous notion that poor people need cash so desperately that it’s all right to choke them on interest.

Put this down, then, as taking the risk of speaking entirely too soon.

On top of that, here’s an assertion that risks the appearance of a lost mind: Our term-limits law, while wrong-headed generally and made worse as the most restrictive in the country, hasn’t hurt anything.

Legislative leadership, which is the key, has been mostly adequate to good in the term limits era. Members have moved between the House and Senate to compile experience.

The House, more restricted by term limits than the Senate, had a minor meltdown two sessions ago. But it had a strong leader last time in Bill Stovall and now has a pretty good one in Benny Petrus.

We’ve always relied on the lack of sophistication of part-time citizen legislators and placed a premium on sophisticated staff and sophisticated lobbyists. These term-limited legislators haven’t been any worse than the old regimes, or in some cases as bad. State government may not be the advanced calculus that some of us said.

Now, to the original point, which was that this may be the best regular session of my experience.

I started observing these exercises a quarter-century ago. This is my 13th, since regular sessions occur biennially. Well, it’s my 12th, actually. I spent 1993 in Washington observing something else. But I am assured that session wasn’t anything special.

Being but a lad at the time, I wasn’t covering in 1971 and 1973 when, with Dale Bumpers in the governor’s office, the Legislature raised the income tax, reorganized government, started community colleges and made progress on free textbooks and childhood immunizations.

That reminds me: Mike Beebe’s model always has been Bumpers more than Bill Clinton. Beebe’s affinity for Bumpers began when Bumpers picked him at 27 for appointment to the board of trustees of Beebe’s alma mater, Arkansas State University.

Another thing, to continue the stream of consciousness: Term limits may have had the effect of making Beebe governor. If the Constitution had allowed him to stay in the Senate, running things and never getting an opponent, then, as a cautious man who enjoyed the legislative process, he might never have taken a chance.

Anyway, here’s what this session appears well toward accomplishing:

• It will make the tax system fairer by taking half the sales tax off groceries, raising the floor for the income tax and raising the homestead property tax exemption.

• Blessed with fat budgets, it will manage even while cutting regressive taxes to grant reasonably generous funding increases for higher education, pre-kindergarten and categorical aid to public schools.

• It will use about half the surplus to meet a court order to improve public school facilities and probably get the state freed from the Lake View court case.

• It will make at least one marginal improvement, and perhaps others, in ethics law.

• It will cease the unaccountable mad rush on surplus funds for local capital projects. It will choose instead to appropriate general sums for these not unworthy purposes through proper disbursing agencies or programs in the executive branch.

• It will provide $50 million from the surplus for a world-class cancer center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences.

• It may even do a road program, dependent on voter approval of bonded debt.

That would be pretty good for three months’ work, especially for novices and even taking into account the inevitable advancement of the occasional lame bill.

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