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Slim margin could decide 2014 elections

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This fall one of the most important elections in the history of Arkansas could come down to your vote. The 2014 elections have the potential to define Arkansas for years ahead. And they are going to be close.

You can make a huge impact by getting out, talking with friends, family, neighbors and coworkers. Let them know what's at stake and encourage them to become more active too. Go and meet the candidates running for your legislative district, tell them what issues are important to you, and find out where they stand.

Whatever you do, don't sit this one out. Arkansas needs you like never before.

The polls show near dead heats for three critical races: The U.S. Senate, where Sen. Mark Pryor has a small lead over Rep. Tom Cotton; governor, where Mike Ross has a slim lead over Asa Hutchinson; and the Arkansas State House of Representatives, where Republicans currently hold a one-seat majority.

Eighteen out of 100 state House races were decided by less than 10 percent of the vote in 2012, and 11 of 35 state Senate races were decided by margins that small. Rep. John Hutchison (R-Harrisburg) won his House seat by 45 votes. Sen. Bobby Joe Pierce (D-Sheridan) at the other end of Arkansas won by just 250 out of 20,000 cast.

In other words, it really could come down to you in 2014. The impact of engaged citizens could decide the election, and determine the future of policy in our state.

Consider what's at stake. Arkansas's recent history is marked by a politics focused on pragmatism over ideology, progress over politics. This has served us well through rapidly improving public schools, access to health care, improved roads and infrastructure, and better protections for our natural heritage.

Now that's all at risk. Big money is pouring into this year's election to try to tell Arkansans what to think and how to vote.

The infamous Koch brothers have already spent $1.4 million on ads in Arkansas this year, and it's only April. They want to convince us that the solution to poverty is to give more special favors to the wealthy and strip health care reform from the middle class and poor who need it. This sort of thinking was reflected in the 2013 session, when the legislature passed tax cuts for the rich while doing nothing to expand economic opportunity or address widening income gaps.

More wealthy special interests are pouring millions into trying to convince us to abandon proven solutions for public schools and put our faith in unregulated competition to ensure equitable and excellent education for our kids. Today we have one of the fastest improving public education systems in the country, and it needs to keep getting better, but last legislative session billionaire-funded groups filed legislation to dismantle our education system and turn away from the reforms we know will work.

And not to be left behind, big oil and coal are spending millions to try to convince us that climate change isn't affecting us. They say that the clean water Arkansas prides itself on isn't so important. Last session they passed a bill crippling an important energy conservation program and another, later overturned, which gutted our water quality standards.

To counter these millions flowing into our political system we have: you.

Actually we have lots of us, doing what Arkansas has always done, standing together to do what our communities need.

We need you to stand up for better public schools for all and for economic development that lifts our state out of poverty. We need you to stand up for energy policies that create jobs, help consumers and protect our planet. We need you to stand up for fairness so that no one loses a job, housing, paycheck or their right to vote because of who they are.

In a lot of ways this election is not about Republican against Democrat, but regular Arkansans capable of working together across party lines against the millionaire and billionaire hyper-partisan outsiders trying to redefine our state.

Many progressives are upset with the field of candidates, saying that they haven't been bold enough, that they're all too conservative. This may be, but it's because we haven't created enough demand for it. The solution isn't to "sit this one out as protest." The stakes are far too high.

The solution is for you to engage — not on the partisan politics but on the issues. Stand up for what you believe in. Make those issues heard in the campaigns. Engage with your neighbors and the larger community and make sure everyone knows where the candidates stand on the issues. Vote for whichever imperfect candidate comes closest to being able to implement what you care about. And then stay engaged and hold elected officials accountable to keep the attention on the issues.

If you're fed up with polarized politics, don't make the mistake of dropping out. Arkansas needs you now more than ever. Let's get to work!

Bill Kopsky is the executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel.

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