In their recently completed special session, Arkansas legislators mostly confronted issues of relevance to real people. This is more remarkable than it sounds.
In a perfect world, legislative bodies would engage the important questions every time they meet. The world, and legislatures, fall well short of perfection, however, and at both the state and national level, lawmakers have a way of avoiding the essential.
Congress, for example, persistently ignores the fact that the living standard of ordinary Americans has been declining for 25 years. More than half the income lost by the bottom 80 percent of Americans was captured by the top one-quarter of 1 percent. As the columnist Robert Kuttner says, if democracy were working the way it’s supposed to, this great and growing disparity would be Topic A in Washington. The two parties would be competing with proposals to raise the living standards of ordinary Americans. Instead, the issue is not even mentioned, much less made the subject of legislation.
In context then, Arkansas legislators compiled an impressive record.
• They raised the minimum wage from $5.15 to $6.25 an hour, directly benefiting 127,000 minimum-wage earners and aiding other low-income workers as well. Increases in the minimum wage have a ripple effect. The bill will profit merchants, too. The poor spend every dollar they get.
• They banned smoking in the workplace, another bill that helps those who labor for a living (and their customers).
• Most of all, they invested more money in the schools, a large step toward providing the adequate public education that both the state Constitution and modern times require.
Not to engage in fulsome praise, let’s note that all this was not accomplished solely on legislators’ benevolent initiative. The minimum-wage bill was enacted to head off a constitutional amendment that would not only have raised the current wage, but provided for automatic cost-of-living adjustments in the future. The smoking ban was overdue, approved only after public demand had become well-nigh irresistible, and still the bill was weakened by amendment. Greater support for the schools had been ordered by the Arkansas Supreme Court, and what was actually provided by the legislature was less than it might have been. Finally, because this was a special session with a strictly limited agenda, legislators were denied the opportunity to pursue those wild hares that so often distract them. Governor Huckabee, who set the agenda, deserves some credit. In fact, the governor, who frequently loses interest in the legislative process before it’s over, seemed to stay involved with this session, even though he and many of the legislators disagreed with the Supreme Court decision that required it. They did their jobs anyway.