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Polarization thwacks the legislature

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One would think that Arkansas's state political institutions would be overwhelmingly popular with the state's citizens.

The state's budgetary health throughout the recession years has been the envy of other states. Sizable (though not irresponsible) tax cuts were enacted in the just-completed legislative session.

In that same session, the state government showed that it could tackle big problems by successfully passing a corrections overhaul that is arguably the most important action by state government in this generation besides the Lake View school reforms.

Gov. Mike Beebe is, indeed, the recipient of immense public approval.

Last week's Talk Business/Hendrix College poll showed the ongoing broad and deep support for the governor. At 67 percent approval, including 52 percent support among Arkansas's Republicans, Beebe appears on his way to sharing the title of most popular Arkansas governor in the contemporary era with Dale Bumpers.(Remember that David Pryor had the ill-conceived "Arkansas Plan" that harmed his standing midway through his governorship.)

But, the approval of state government stops with the governor. The state's General Assembly is not sharing in the warmth of the Arkansas public. That same poll shows that Arkansans paying enough attention to the recent legislative session to evaluate it disapproved of the legislature's performance by 29 to 41 percent.

The state's draconian term limits provisions ensure ever-decreasing legislative experience and have turned the opening weeks of every legislative session into a lengthy orientation session for the dozens of new members working to learn the basics of the legislative process. This increasingly apparent legislative inefficiency certainly gets some blame for the low standing of the legislature. Also partly to blame is the unwillingness of the body to pass meaningful ethics reform legislation even as taxpayer-funded reimbursements to legislators for their own "consulting services" are brought to light.

However, it is another force that showed itself during the session that brought the greatest harm to the General Assembly's public perception: partisan polarization. As all signs indicate a future with an even more intensely polarized legislature, the future does not bode well for Arkansans' faith in their legislative voice.

The Capitol building in Little Rock is a replica of the U.S. Capitol in Washington. In 2011 the Arkansas legislature similarly began copying the behavior of the hyperpartisan United States Congress, breaking with a past in which partisanship mattered relatively little in Arkansas's General Assembly. That partisanship was shown in rhetoric that grew increasingly heated as the session's weeks went by on issues such as health care reform, taxes, and abortion.

This week's report of the Citizens First Congress, a multi-issue progressive lobbying group, shows almost complete partisanship in the voting patterns in the state House with all but one Democrat clumped at the top of their list of supportive legislators and all but two Republicans clumped at the bottom. (The state Senate does remain less polarized, for the moment.)

Polarization turns off voters across the political spectrum. Independent voters are repelled by partisanship in any form. But, more ideologically extreme voters are also demoralized when the polarization often leads to an impasse on the issues they care most about.

The prison reform package that has the promise to transform the state's increasingly costly corrections system should have been celebrated as an achievement that showed that the legislature could do big things even in an era of polarization and term limits. However, the bill signing was overshadowed by headlines about the messy (and often partisan) congressional redistricting process that log-jammed the legislature for weeks.

It is unclear which party will control the General Assembly in the 2013 session, but it is quite clear that the divided body will likely be even more polarized than this time out. The result will be a frustrated, disempowered citizenry unless legislative leaders emerge from both parties with the Beebe-esque capability to build bridges across these lines of difference.

Jay Barth is a professor of politics at Hendrix College. Ernest Dumas is on vacation.

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