Columns » Jay Barth

Still ripe for reform in Arkansas?



Last February, the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation released a report I authored titled "Ripe for Reform: Arkansas as a Model for Social Change." It highlighted the state's recent progressive patterns on a variety of public policy matters ranging from pre-K-12 education, children's health access, and tax and budget decisions that maintained key state services even through two recessions. Under both parties' leadership, Arkansas had been an example of pragmatic progressivism that contrasted it with the states around it. Just as important as what the state accomplished, it was noteworthy that Arkansas generally avoided divisive social legislation.

In explaining the patterns, the report pointed to Arkansas's small size that allows grassroots politics to have an impact on policy, the fact that advocacy groups work remarkably well together in coalitions, and a distinctly depoliticized state judiciary that allowed state courts the independence to make tough decisions, in addition to the state's populist political culture. However, the report concluded with a warning about the heightened polarization being expressed in the political rhetoric in the state.

Last week, I was asked to reflect upon the recently concluded session of the legislature for the future of progressivism in Arkansas at the regular post-legislative session sponsored by Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families. There, I grappled with whether "Ripe for Reform" is now simply a historical document or whether it remains a viable model for political change in an emphatically two-party (and GOP-trending) Arkansas.

Despite the sharpened polarization of issues such as abortion, guns, and charter education during the session, the passage of the "private option" suggests that pragmatic progressivism hasn't entirely departed with the shift in legislative power at the Capitol. Like past key reforms on education and children's health, it is an imperfect, but clear step forward for the state. The question: Does that major legislation mark the last gasp of the tradition or does it show the durability of Arkansas's pragmatic progressivism?

Progressive victories will be less consistent than in the past — especially in areas like tax policy — but they unquestionably remain possible. First, there are lessons to be learned from the health care expansion episode on future public policy debates. As in that case, policies that are framed in terms of their economic benefit to the state will be advantaged. Fortunately, many of the key priorities of progressive groups are easy to frame as economic positives for the state. Further expansion of early childhood education, advancement of afterschool programs, movement away from juvenile incarceration to community-based treatment, and the DREAM Act all represent investments with exceptional returns for the state.

But, framing alone will not create the change that progressives envision for the state's future. Groups engaged in progressive work on the state have to go beyond legislative lobbying to hone a variety of tools for social change. Lobbying state agencies on rules and regulations, using direct democracy, building real grassroots organizations throughout the state, and litigating when necessary (remember it was the Lake View cases that drove education reform in the state) all have to be part of the progressive movement's tool chest. To thrive, Arkansas's progressives will have to show new agility and ambidextrousness in the policy-making arena.

The coalitional work that has been a hallmark of social change efforts in Arkansas becomes paramount. Indeed, the victories for progressives during the session aside from the "private option"— positive energy and early childhood reforms, stymying extreme school choice efforts, and stopping the so-called "highway robbery" budget legislation — all reflected bipartisan approaches, engaged active constituency groups, and were coalitional in nature. Most key progressive failures of the session were absent those elements.

Next, progressives cannot wait until final debates on the policies that they care most about to engage in the policymaking process. Most important, they have to fight efforts to alter the rules of the game by limiting access to the petition process and the ballot box and by attacking the tradition of separation of powers and the independence of the Arkansas judiciary. These proposals all center on taking away tools of political change and reducing grassroots power.

All this said, vital is whether pragmatists win the governorship and the Speaker's race in the House (no matter which party controls that chamber) in the next two years. That is the most important variable determining just how ripe for reform Arkansas remains.

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