Columns » Max Brantley

The blue state of Arkansas



The Arkansas legislature met last week and the overwhelmingly Democratic body did just about everything the Republican governor had hoped.

With an ever-growing state surplus, there was no talk of tax cutting. Not only was the nine-figure surplus preserved for future pig-outs, legislators voted overwhelmingly to throw hundreds of millions more dollars at education. Nor was increased funding the only good school news. Given the opportunity to weaken high school course standards in the putative name of rural school protection, the governor and a critical Senate committee said no.

The same legislature gave the lowest-paid workers in the state a 21 percent increase in the minimum wage, to $6.25 an hour. The Republican governor again pronounced himself pleased.

After continued taxing and more spending — of both the state and private businesses’ payroll money — the legislature also dabbled in social issues. Notably, it approved — again by an overwhelming margin — a progressive bill to ban smoking in most workplaces. Here, the Republican governor could fairly be described as a leader, though his active lobbying wasn’t particularly successful among members of his own party.

You’d have thunk you were in Massachusetts, the agenda was so liberal. It was all the more incongruous given that the term-limited Republican governor’s next political outing might be a Republican primary race for president. Does Mike Huckabee know something about shifting Republican winds that we don’t know?

It wasn’t an unalloyed victory for progressive viewpoints. Take the smoking vote, for example. It was nice to learn the tobacco lobby no longer holds veto power in the Arkansas legislature. But the gambling and liquor lobbies still have more clout than most legislators.

The Southland and Oaklawn Park race tracks were granted one of the few exemptions from the anti-smoking legislation. Second-hand smoke will continue to join photo finishes as a heart attack factor at the tracks.

Then there’s the liquor lobby.

Fearful of the economic impact of a restriction on the habitual inclination to reinforce one compulsion (drinking) with another (smoking), the liquor lobby, with help from restaurants, pushed for an exemption that allows smoking at restaurants and bars that don’t allow admission to anyone younger than 21, including employees. Older folks will continue to get what they want and/or deserve at such places.

This exemption brought a stout protest afterward from one successful restaurateur, Shannon Wynne of Flying Saucer and Flying Fish fame. He’d like to see a total ban on smoking in restaurants. He’s fearful of the competitive disadvantage he’ll face if bars in the River Market keep smoking by putting an age limit in place while he follows the new law so he may continue to admit minors. He wrote:

“Most of us can’t remember smoking in theaters or airplanes, yet we are still debating smoking in bars and restaurants? …The governor says it is a historic moment for Arkansas. It would be if he and both houses had the guts to wipe out all smoking in all public places…”

We lift a toast to Mr. Wynne’s pointed observation. Please note, Little Rock City Board, that the new state law explicitly allows cities to enact ordinances that go farther than state law. The board could adopt a no-exceptions ordinance for restaurants and bars. Time’s wasting. The new law takes effect in less than two months.

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