Columns » Ernest Dumas

The scourge

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Members of the Arkansas General Assembly arrived at the Capitol Monday without the proper welcome that hastened the lawmakers on their journey into history nearly every odd-numbered year for the last quarter-century. That was a cartoon by George Fisher — in the Arkansas Gazette until 1993 and then the Arkansas Times until his death in 2003 — warning the public of the coming scourge.

Each of the cartoons was a brilliant variation on the same theme, which was that a sitting of the legislature was dangerous to the public welfare. Fisher's parodies grew no kinder as a session progressed and he saw fulfilled his expectation of self-interest, greed and bigotry.

Only occasionally was the legislature quite as unredeeming as Fisher made it. There actually were a few legislatures marked by modest to remarkable achievement. But Fisher operated from a knowledge of the past, particularly the 1950s and '60s, when the resurgent shibboleths and suspicions that had dogged government from statehood forward guided state policy.

Better than anything else, the history of this lawmaking every two years furnishes an accounting for the condition in which Arkansas has always found itself, which is, relative to other states, poor and ignorant.

Grudgingly, I have to acknowledge that the legislature by fits and starts has gotten a little better almost from the time that Fisher began caricaturing it, and there is some reason to hope that the trend will continue with the 87th. The demographic evidence alone is encouraging. Twenty-three percent of the legislators, an Arkansas record and a share that is higher than all the surrounding states, are women, and 10 percent are African-Americans. Forgive the generality, but women tend to be less anchored in the status quo and African-Americans for sure are.

Every time that the state legislature gathers it has but one overarching purpose, which is to expand the opportunities for people —  as many of the 2.9 million that it can and in whatever ways that the rosy or grim conditions of the time allow. To the extent that the state is poor and backward or advanced, it is a reflection of how faithfully past legislatures, in collaboration with executive leaders, have pursued that goal.

So what are the prospects that the 87th will enlarge rather than shrink the possibilities of better living? The new speaker of the House of Representatives was encouraging. He said every member ought not to just sit there but try to do something, and his own expectations were to make education more than just adequate and equal, which is the constitutional injunction, expand the state's woeful health-care safety net, create a lottery that will actually help people instead of only exploit them and expand broadband into poor rural areas of the state. If the legislature does all of those things it will have met the historical test.

But the prospects are just as large that the legislature will thwart opportunity rather than promote it. The nativist element is out at every session to kick immigrants off the ladder of success. A Hot Springs Republican introduced a bill requiring everyone to run the gauntlet of the federal verification system to get an identification card of any kind from an employer or a government agency. One goal is to keep the children of immigrants who don't have papers from getting a college education or getting a leg up in any other way from the taxes they pay.

There is a strategy for economic development. Keep them ignorant and unemployed. A far better case can be made for giving them a scholarship. Such will be the tests for the 87th legislature.

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