One state’s chaotic, creative conservatism

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

If I were to tell you that a state legislature this year passed a six-cent gas tax increase. abolished the death penalty, and voted to let young illegal immigrants brought by their parents to America obtain a driver’s license, what state would you guess that would be? California? Massachusetts? Maybe Colorado?

Try Nebraska.

Yep. The Midwestern state where three-fourths of the legislators are Republicans did all of those things. In fact, legislators overrode their newly elected Republican governor’s veto on all three bills.

This column has an Arkansas connection, but first, what’s up with Nebraska?

The sponsor of the gas tax increase, Sen. Jim Smith, told me the bill was simply an acceptance of financial reality. The roads needed more money, and legislators didn’t trust Congress to help. Two of Nebraska’s neighbors, Iowa and South Dakota, also raised their gas taxes this year.

Regarding the death penalty ban, which he voted against, he said some Nebraska legislators are Catholic, and the Church opposes the death penalty. Also, a number of Nebraska legislators are libertarian Republicans, which means they tend to distrust government in all walks of life, including social issues. As another Nebraska lawmaker explained, if she doesn’t trust government to manage her health care, she shouldn’t trust it to put someone to death.

As for young illegal immigrants with driver’s licenses, Nebraska was the only state that had such a ban. The thinking in ending it was, the residents have a legal status under President Obama’s executive order, and they need to be able to drive in order to get to work.

There are two other things worth noting about Nebraska. While its lawmakers are Republicans and Democrats, it’s the only state where they don’t run with a party label attached. Consequently, Smith said, “We have 49 independent contractors.”

Also, Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislature – in other words, just a Senate with no House. While Arkansas has 135 legislators, Nebraska has 49. While Arkansas lawmakers considered 2,200 bills and passed 1,288 into law this year, Nebraska legislators only considered about 600 bills and passed about 240 into law. Could a more focused agenda help legislators engage in serious debates about big issues? Just a thought.

Here’s another reason why I’m writing about Nebraska. Republicans everywhere tend to be ideologically unified. Officeholders tend not to wander too far from party orthodoxy, even when they want to, lest they be labeled a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) and draw a primary opponent. Republican commentators, meanwhile, are so predictable that there’s usually little point in seeing what they have to say. Democrats, long the more disorganized party, are becoming more unified, too, but this column is not about them.

And yet in Nebraska, a legislature full of Republicans passed bills that raised the gas tax, ended the death penalty, and made life easier for illegal immigrants. Those are not the standard conservative positions, but it’s not hard to see the gas tax as pro-commerce, the death penalty ban as anti-government, and the driver’s license bill as pro-personal responsibility – all principles conservatives say they support.

So if that can happen in one conservative, Republican, mid-America state with an agricultural heritage and only one football team, could it happen in another? As the Republican majority becomes more entrenched in Arkansas, like it’s already entrenched in Nebraska, could we see the emergence of a more creative, chaotic conservatism that applies the party’s principles in new ways?

Certainly, divisions among Arkansas Republicans have already occurred over issues like the Medicaid private option. Some see it as a way to reform government health care, while others see it as capitulation to Obamacare. Arkansas Republicans also will divide along urban and rural lines just like Arkansas Democrats always did, and just like Republicans do in Nebraska.

What other types of factions will form? How often will one faction team up with Democrats? And just how chaotic will it often be? It certainly was chaotic when Democrats had a secure majority.

Maybe this was an unusual year in Nebraska. Maybe it was simply that the time had come for those three bills. Or maybe voters there will send some of those legislators packing during the next election.

Or maybe it’s still possible to buck the party orthodoxy, in either party in any state, if legislators see themselves as independent contractors.

Divided States of America

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Last Monday, Gov. Asa Hutchinson decided to end Arkansas’ participation in the state’s current end-of-the-year Common Core PARCC exam, despite the fact that the State Board of Education had voted to do the opposite. It was only the fourth biggest story of the week.

That’s how much there was to talk about. The Supreme Court’s rulings on gay marriage and the Affordable Care Act, plus the Confederate flag issue, all were more newsworthy than Common Core, which usually gets people’s attention.

These issues run deep. For many Americans, gay marriage is either a fundamental human right, or it’s an attack on traditional marriage and a sin. Obamacare is an acceptable expansion of health insurance, or it’s a government takeover. Great-great-grandfather fought nobly for the South, or Great-great-grandfather was a slave.

There was an air of finality to last week’s developments. Gay marriage is now legal everywhere, and it’s also supported by a growing majority of Americans, particularly those under 30, so politicians calling for massive resistance won’t accomplish much if their goal is to make it illegal again. Obamacare is now firmly entrenched in the health care system, especially with this latest Supreme Court decision. To substantively change anything at the federal level, Republicans would have to win the White House, the House and a 60-vote majority in the Senate, an almost impossible task given the math in 2016. Then they would have to coalesce behind an alternative, which would be even harder. The Confederate flag has far fewer defenders than it did a couple of weeks ago. It’s been removed from Alabama’s Capitol, and even NASCAR’s chairman said he wants his sport “disassociated” from it.

But the arguments will continue, as they always do in a democracy. The debate over gay marriage now shifts to the extent that private individuals and businesses can be compelled by government force to accept it. Obamacare will be the focus of more litigation, and House Republicans will continue to stage votes to repeal it. Regardless of what happens to the Confederate symbol, far deeper substantive divisions will remain over race, justice, and the meaning of the past.

One of the things that’s most frustrating about American politics is that there are issues where we could agree, at least about the problem, if we gave it a shot. Most of us would say it’s wrong to keep adding to the national debt that we’re passing on to our kids, and because money doesn’t grow on trees, the government must over time collect as much money as it spends. We should agree that the country should maintain its highways, control its borders, and manage an orderly immigration system.

Unfortunately, we often can’t take meaningful action on these important areas where we could agree because the debate is so clouded by those important areas where we’ll never agree. Republicans and Democrats in Washington have become like a married couple that can’t stop fighting over the in-laws long enough to call 9-1-1 about their kitchen that’s on fire. Even a commonsense issue like the national debt, which must be addressed by a series of difficult but doable mathematical compromises, becomes enmeshed in the culture war. It’s hard to work with the other guy when you’ve told your supporters he’s a communist or a Nazi.

Increasingly, these United States are looking much more divided, much more tribal, and much more us versus them. Too many of our daily conversations, the media we consume, and our Facebook posts – my goodness, the Facebook posts – are marked by mocking, scornful attitudes towards entire groups of people, often based on beliefs.

And that’s a little scary. You can’t really believe in freedom unless you believe in freedom for those who are different than you, and that’s hard to do for someone you don’t respect. The next step after contempt is control, and control tends to spread like a virus that starts in one part of the body and then multiples until everything is infected.

We’re not all going to get along, but, like a lot of difficult marriages, we can meet in the middle as often as possible for the sake of our kids. No one ever said living in a free society would be easy, but Someone did once say, “Blessed are the peacemakers.” So peace be unto you, even when we don’t agree, and even when we can’t.

Arkansas’ one star

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

arkansasFlag Flags are symbols, and symbols mean different things to different people – good people.

For some, the Confederate flag represents regional pride, a connection to the ancestral past, and sacrifice. For others, it’s a symbol of oppression and discrimination – long ago, recent, and present. For others, it’s about vague, undefined defiance. And for a small number of people, including that mass murderer in Charleston, it’s an inspiration to do very bad things.

Three out of four of those associations aren’t positive.

You can display almost whatever symbol you want on your car, property or shirt. When it comes to public areas, the Confederate flag has its places – such as in museums and adorning the graves of Confederate soldiers.

But I can’t see a good reason to display at any state Capitol a symbol that makes a lot of people feel bad and is used by a few to promote hatred and bigotry. So I’m glad the governor of Alabama ordered the flags removed from his Capitol. I hope South Carolina legislators do the same. Moreover, I support Fort Smith Southside’s decision to change its “Rebels” nickname and stop playing “Dixie.” If I were an African-American student, I would not like those being associated with my school.

So what about that one star on Arkansas’ flag?

According to the online Encyclopedia of Arkansas, the state did not have a flag until 1913. The Pine Bluff chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution decided one was needed to fly above the Navy’s new battleship, the USS Arkansas, and initiated a statewide contest to design one. Miss Willie Hocker of Wabbaseka had the winning design.

The flag the state adopted is not just one symbol, but many. The red, white and blue colors represent the United States. The diamond represents Arkansas being the only diamond-producing state. The 25 stars arrayed in the blue diamond represent the fact that Arkansas was the 25th state admitted to the union.

The first flag included three blue stars, two above and one below the word “Arkansas,” to represent the three nations to which Arkansas belonged prior to statehood: France, Spain and the United States. In 1923, the Legislature added a fourth blue star to mark the state’s membership in the Confederacy. At first, there were two stars above the word and two below. The next year, the design was changed so that the Confederate star stands alone on top. In 1987, the Legislature passed a bill, signed by then-Gov. Bill Clinton, that reaffirmed the flag’s symbolism, including the fact that the star’s purpose is “to commemorate the Confederate States of America.”

That star, and that commemoration, has not escaped notice, especially given that Hillary Clinton is running for president and has spoken in support of South Carolina removing the Confederate flag from its Capitol.

The question is, what does it mean to “commemorate”? My online Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it several ways, including “to remind people of,” and “to remember and honor.” Google’s definition includes the word “celebrate.”

Does Arkansas’ flag remember, or does it celebrate the Confederacy? It seems to me to do more remembering – at least, it does for us today. I have no more allegiance to the Confederacy than I do to France or Spain. It’s troubling that the era is marked by the single star above Arkansas rather than one of the three below. I’d rather the top star represent the U.S.A. That could be changed with an act of the Legislature, but I don’t look for that to happen.

The meanings of symbols change over time and often according to circumstance. For example, the dollar bill can represent thrift, industry or greed, depending on how it’s used. The U.S. Capitol dome sometimes appears in political commercials to represent corruption, not democracy.

For enough Americans, the Confederate flag’s meaning has never changed. It has always represented slavery and discrimination. It’s always made some of us feel set apart and looked down upon. So it doesn’t belong amidst the halls of democracy where, ideally, everyone is supposed to be represented equally.

As for Arkansas’ flag, let it be a history lesson, and a reminder of how far the state has journeyed. At one time Arkansas was French. At another, Spanish. And at another, on the wrong side of history. It’s all worth remembering, even if it all shouldn’t be celebrated.

Is being governor easy?

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Maybe being Arkansas’ governor is not that tough a job.

No offense to governors present and past, but that thought occurred to me after seeing a recent poll by Talk Business, Hendrix College and Impact Management Group. Gov. Asa Hutchinson enjoyed a 52-18 percent approval-disapproval rating, which was similar to former Gov. Mike Beebe’s 54-22 rating in a Public Policy Polling survey last year. No incumbent governor has lost a re-election race since 1982, when Bill Clinton beat Frank White two years after White beat Clinton.

Beebe’s numbers remained high throughout his time in office, and he was re-elected with 64 percent of the vote at a time when some other Arkansas Democrats were being swamped by the Republican red tide. The Talk Business poll even found him leading Sen. John Boozman, who hasn’t offended many people, 45-37 in a hypothetical U.S. Senate race.

That’s a Democrat leading an incumbent Republican in a Southern red state while President Barack Obama is still in office and Hillary Clinton is the likely Democratic presidential nominee. Who could do that besides a popular former governor?

That’s not to discount Beebe and Hutchinson as governors or people. It’s early, but so far Hutchinson has exuded calm, self-controlled leadership. Beebe understood state government as well as anyone, and he’s an excellent communicator who speaks plain Arkansan at the lectern and in person. Both have governed from a practical, consensus-building perspective. For what it’s worth, both know how to work the press. Furthermore, and the importance of this cannot be overstated, both married well.

But maybe they’re both good at a job where it’s not difficult to be merely adequate.

Arkansas is a lower income state that’s had its struggles, so most people – Republicans, Democrats, business and community leaders, and even members of the media – are inclined to want the governor to succeed.

The office itself adds to the governor’s personal aura. He lives in the Governor’s Mansion and is escorted by State Police officers. When he walks in the room, people stand and heads turn. He’s the only state elected official who really has a statewide audience, especially given that the other major positions are part-time (lieutenant governor), a lawyer (attorney general), and a bureaucratic administrator (secretary of state). State legislators come and go without capturing the general public’s attention. They have a lot of power during legislative sessions, but when they go home, the governor is still on the job. When a disaster strikes, it’s the governor who takes the helicopter tour, calls out the National Guard, and asks for federal dollars to make it right.

But while he’s treated like royalty, his powers are limited, which relieves some of the pressure that comes with the big title. The Legislature can override his veto with a simple majority, which is the same percentage that passed the bill in the first place. As a result, there’s not much pressure for the governor to veto many bills. Also, these days the most controversial issues are generally debated at the federal level or in the courts, so the governor usually has an alibi. If the Supreme Court declares Arkansas’ gay marriage ban unconstitutional, nobody will be mad at Hutchinson. If the state eventually has to raise some kind of tax to pay for highways, he can say he had no choice because Congress didn’t provide enough federal money.

Finally, the governor is the state’s chief marketing officer, which has its own benefits. On Hutchinson’s first day on the job, he phoned several companies to brag on Arkansas – important but noncontroversial work. He’s already traveled to Silicon Valley and recently returned from Paris and Germany, all in the name of economic development. He was the one who called legislators into special session to try to land a huge defense contract for Camden, and if the effort is successful, he will be standing at the podium accepting congratulations along with company officials.

Maybe most governors will do fine as long as they avoid political or personal scandal, treat legislators respectfully, work within political realties, and don’t say or do anything stupid. Those aren’t easy, but they’re definitely doable. So it’s a job that comes with a high upside, lots of respect, decent perks and reasonable expectations.

Nice work, if you can get it.

The Common Core conundrum

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

A lot’s been happening with Common Core this past couple of weeks.

It started June 8, when a panel appointed by Gov. Asa Hutchinson and led by Lt. Governor Tim Griffin recommended that the state dump the end-of-the-year PARCC exam, meant to compare Arkansas with a dwindling number of other states, and instead use one offered by the more familiar ACT. Hutchinson accepted the recommendation, and Education Commissioner Johnny Key and his Department of Education began moving in that direction. After a legislative session in which Hutchinson got almost everything he wanted, it seemed like a done deal.

Only it wasn’t. The actual decision maker, the State Board of Education, which five years ago approved Arkansas’ inclusion in the movement, said no on June 11. Board members said they needed more time and more data before they could approve such a change.

So was that it? No. Legislators, many of whom don’t like PARCC, can use the power of the purse to block future testing contracts. Then on June 22, Hutchinson directed the Department of Education to dump PARCC because Key had found a provision in a five-year-old memorandum which seemed to give him the ability to do that.

So now, we’re back where we started, which is stuck in the middle of a major societal change a lot of people oppose or at least like to complain about.

How did we get here? The Common Core is not a curriculum. It’s a set of common standards in math and English adopted by all but a handful of states – Texas, of course, being one of them. The thinking is that, in a mobile society competing in a global economy, students across America ought to know roughly the same things at roughly the same times.

Birthed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Common Core partly was a reaction to No Child Left Behind. That’s the law signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 requiring every single American student – regardless of mental ability or English fluency – to be at least average by now, with the federal government empowered to financially punish schools who don’t meet that goal.

Sounds crazy? There’s more. No Child Left Behind let states define their own standards, which resulted, not surprisingly, in a lot of easy ones. In Arkansas, 83 percent of fourth-graders in 2014 tested at least “proficient” on the state’s Benchmark exam, which PARCC replaced this year. But the National Assessment of Educational Progress, another test given to a sample of students nationwide and generally considered trustworthy, found that only 32 percent of Arkansas fourth-graders were proficient.

That’s a 51-point swing. When we test and grade ourselves knowing we have a financial interest at stake, we give ourselves high marks. When an outside source tests and grades us, we do poorly. That’s why we might need some form of common goals measured by an objective assessment.

The conundrum, of course, is how to do that while still maintaining local school district autonomy and independence. Common Core was supposed to be the answer, but people still distrusted it, and then of course the Obama administration started handing out grants, and with grants come rules, and with rules comes control. And that, understandably, concerns a lot of people.

Part of the problem is the way Common Core was adopted – by a little-noticed vote of the State Board of Education in 2010. This was a major change in the way students are educated, and yet few Arkansans had heard much about it until kids started bringing home math problems their parents couldn’t figure out. Some people got concerned and others got plain mad, and political leaders reacted accordingly. The PARCC test became a target, and ending Arkansas’ participation in it might help let off a little steam.

This country is such a mess right now that it can be a little discouraging, can’t it? Many problems are so obvious that we can hardly argue about their existence. We know our schools aren’t good enough. We know our immigration system is a failure. Our health care system has been on an unsustainable path for decades. We know it’s wrong to keep adding to the national debt. And yet we can’t ever seem to decide where we are going, make a plan and get the car in gear.

What gear is Arkansas in regarding Common Core? Stuck in PARCC, for now.

Levees and the era of neglect

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

A column with the word “levees” in the headline probably won’t attract a record number of readers. Unless you live in a floodplain, they’re just big piles of dirt, right?

Well, not really.

The recent floods have drawn attention to Arkansas’ deteriorating levees. Really, “forgotten” is the better word. As reported in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette Sunday and elsewhere, it turns out that, in many cases, no one’s really in charge of maintaining them, or even caring whether or not they exist. They were built when the need was obvious, such as after the Great Flood of 1927, when the overflowing Mississippi River submerged much of the state. Local boards were set up to maintain them, and legislation was passed to ensure their independence. The board members – those with memories of those floods – grew old and died or for whatever reason stopped paying attention. Those big piles of dirt continued to function fine for decades – until, this past spring, when at least a couple of them didn’t.

A levee is just like anything else in that it becomes less effective over time unless it is maintained. Dirt erodes. Vegetation overgrows. Mankind intrudes. As the Democrat-Gazette reported, one levee nearly failed because someone once dug a hole at its base for a construction project.

This spring was a wake-up call, so legislators are scheduled to hold hearings June 24. It helps that one of them, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, saw his property submerged under water during the flooding. The issues will be the same as they often are in a democracy: Should someone be in charge, and if so, who? And, where will the money come from?

Were this only about piles of dirt, I probably wouldn’t be writing about it, but Arkansas’ levee situation is part of a larger story – in fact, one of today’s biggest.

For centuries, this was the land of sacrificial investment. Immigrants came here knowing it might take a generation for the family to really enjoy the benefits. Wars were fought where more than just a few contributed. Railroads were laid. Roads and bridges were built. Arkansas taxpayers in the early 20th century paid extra so that’s today’s taxpayers would have an extra sturdy State Capitol to conduct the people’s business.

Contrast that with today, when it’s way too much about the present, and we’ll let our children fend for themselves. The obvious example is the $18 trillion national debt – equivalent to $57,000 for every American man, woman and child – almost all of which has been created since 1980.

But there are other less obvious ways in which we’re passing on the costs of the things we take for granted because of misplaced priorities and waste. For example, the nation isn’t properly maintaining its aging transportation infrastructure, much less making significant improvements. Instead of making tough choices and really addressing the deficiencies, Congress patched a hole in the highway budget this past year partly through an accounting gimmick that borrows from the next 10 years. That money has been spent, future taxpayers will be paying, and yet the Highway Trust Fund is nearly insolvent again. Meanwhile, plumbing systems in many cities are aging. In some cases, they’re more than a century old. Few care as long as it goes away when they flush, but someone will have to fix those pipes eventually.

Americans often assign names and characteristics to generations: the baby boomers, Generation X, the Millennials, but it won’t take long for future Americans to lump us all into one category. We think of the 1700s as the age of exploration and the American Revolution, the 1800s as the era of expansion and the Civil War, and the 1900s as the century of American victory and ascendancy. I fear they’ll someday say ours was the Era of Neglect.

It doesn’t have to be this way. We’re still capable of investing. Maybe this recent scare will result in a renewed emphasis on levee maintenance. Everyone recognizes it costs much less to maintain a big pile of dirt than it does to rebuild a flooded community. Meanwhile, Congress at least recognizes the need to invest in the nation’s transportation infrastructure, even if it hasn’t figured out how. Sometimes those old plumbing pipes actually do get fixed.

I’m struggling to come up with something positive to say about the national debt. How about this? Americans have overcome worse.

Let’s just hope it doesn’t take the equivalent of a flood before we’ll try.

When turkeys attack

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Have you ever thought about what you would do if you were attacked by a turkey? If it happens after Oct. 1, someone will have thought about it for you.

That’s the date the nation’s medical providers – including 38,000 of them in Arkansas – are required by the government to switch from the ICD-9 coding system to ICD-10. The codes are what your doctors transmit to insurance companies and government agencies to get paid.

ICD isn’t just a national standard but a worldwide one. The United States began using ICD-9 in 1979. ICD-10 has been around 25 years, and much of the world has already switched to it.

ICD-10 is “better” in that it’s much more specific. ICD-9 uses 13,000 codes; ICD-10 uses 68,000 – exactly which bone was broken and on which arm, for example. Knowing this information helps payers – insurance companies and the government – detect waste and fraud. It also helps researchers better understand problems and trends.

But ICD-10 takes that specificity to an extreme. According to the fact-checking website Politifact, it has nine separate codes for turkey-related injuries, including one if the patient was struck by a turkey and another if the patient was pecked.

Requiring the nation’s medical coders to switch to that kind of system is not cheap. An American Medical Association study found that, between training costs and software purchases, a small practice will spend between $56,639 and $226,105, with larger practices spending up to $8 million.

That’s a big expense and a lot of trouble, and as a result, the state’s medical providers aren’t prepared for ICD-10. Of the 95 clinics that have responded to an Arkansas Medical Society survey, only 16 percent are ready now, and 30 percent do not expect to be ready by Oct. 1.

The procrastinators are probably hoping the switch will be delayed, as has happened twice. The switch originally was supposed to occur in 2008. But Tami Harlan, deputy director of the state’s Medicaid program, said it’s unlikely the feds will allow another delay. She said her agency is working “feverishly” on the change. On Oct. 1, if a doctor’s office sends Medicaid an ICD-9 code, it will be rejected immediately. The clinic still can be paid by paper check, but that will be costly for it and for the Medicaid program, and the payment will be delayed. So on Oct. 1, expect unprepared clinics across the state to start scrambling.

Is ICD-10 worth it? I don’t know, but we shouldn’t be surprised by all this. This is the system we’ve set up.

American medicine is based on the expectation that most care will feel almost free to the patient as the care is provided. We pay into a big system upfront through insurance and taxes, pizza buffet style, and then expect to pay little afterwards. If we want a $25,000 car, we’ll get a loan because, hey, it’s got a sun roof and we earned it. For a procedure that restores our health or saves our life, we’re outraged if asked to pay almost anything because it’s not fair, and besides, that’s why we have insurance. The system should pay for that.

But if we expect government and insurance bureaucracies to pay the big bills, we should expect them to behave as bureaucracies behave. They want to know how the money is spent. They want to put things into boxes. They want to control, and at some level, they have a fiduciary duty to do so.

I’ve heard more than one well-informed person – specifically, Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, and Cheryl Smith Gardner, executive director of the Arkansas Health Insurance Marketplace – say the health care system inevitably will move in one of two directions: more consumer choice, or more government command and control. They and I would prefer more consumer choice.

That’s difficult in health care. Consumer choice requires consumer responsibility, and it’s not like we can go shopping for the best deal when we’re in the ambulance after an auto accident. But at the very least, for smaller stuff like if turkeys attack, we probably ought to pay for it ourselves, if we can. We probably shouldn’t have been messing with the turkeys in the first place. For the bigger stuff, right or wrong and unless expectations change, we’re probably stuck with something like ICD-9 or ICD-10.

Or ICD-11, which should be ready for whoever wants it by 2017.

Huckabee’s debt approach not serious enough

Uncle Sam hangs on for webBy Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Former Gov. Mike Huckabee made some headlines this past week when it came to light that he had made a joke about transgender people during a February speech. He said that, given the chance in high school, he “would have found my feminine side” so he could take showers with the girls in P.E. This was newsworthy, apparently, because of the attention surrounding Bruce Jenner becoming Caitlyn Jenner.

This column is not about that joke. Let’s instead focus on something Huckabee has been saying when he’s completely serious.

Huckabee has released a pledge in which he makes 17 promises, including to “protect Social Security and Medicare and never rob seniors of the benefits they were promised and forced to pay for.” He has criticized other Republicans for proposing to change those two programs, which together compose 38 percent of all federal spending and are growing.

Huckabee is right that benefits should not be cut for current beneficiaries or for those who are nearing retirement age. They’ve paid into the system their entire lives and planned their retirements based on the rules, with no real say in what those rules were. People a little older than me (I’m 46) and younger, on the other hand, are probably going to have to accept some changes.

But in an interview with Fox News’ Neil Cavuto after speaking in Florida June 2, Huckabee said that the rules shouldn’t be changed for anyone paying into the system, including for those just starting out as teenagers who won’t collect for another 50-something years. He openly told Cavuto that he is differentiating himself from other Republicans who have tiptoed toward this politically hazardous issue.

With the aging of the baby boomers, longer life spans, and increasing health care costs, Social Security and Medicare need some fixes. For example, Social Security’s non-existent “trust fund” is due to become insolvent in 2033. That’s 18 years from now, not 50. If the actuarial tables are correct, whoever is in office that year will be forced to either cut benefits by 23 percent, raise taxes, make deep cuts elsewhere, or borrow from the future. He or she will have to make difficult decisions then because current political leaders won’t make them now.

One honest way to continue paying current Medicare and Social Security benefits is to raise taxes and cut other government programs, including the military. If that’s what America wants to do, I’ll write my check now so my kids don’t have to.

The problem is that Huckabee doesn’t propose anything like that. Among his 17 promises are to “support a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution,” but then he pledges to “secure our borders,” “restore our military infrastructure,” and “end the national disgrace of failing to properly care for our veterans” – all worthy goals individually, but none of them free.

There are not a lot of spending cuts in those 17 promises. He does pledge to deny government benefits for illegal immigrants and to repeal Obamacare. That’s not nearly enough to balance the budget, and besides, the pre-Obamacare health care system was a growing driver of the national debt, too. He did say in his speech that the country should redirect its health care spending toward curing diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s. If those efforts were successful, Medicare would be much more sustainable.

Meanwhile, he promises to “oppose and veto any and all efforts to increase taxes” and to replace the current income tax with a national sales tax. He says the new tax system would grow the economy, generate revenue, and be a better way to pay for Social Security and Medicare than cutting spending or raising taxes.

A national sales tax might or might not be a good idea, but it certainly would be a huge experiment. If it raised less revenue than expected, then would Huckabee cut spending?

For decades, Republicans and Democrats have engaged in the same politics: Grow government first, and then worry about paying for it later, or never. At least Huckabee is being honest about the fact that he won’t cut Social Security and Medicare or raise taxes.

But by doing so, he’s contributing to the national misperception that this impossible math is all going to work. Americans haven’t accepted the hard truth that if they want these government programs, they’ll have to pay for them. Leaders must tell them that truth.

Let’s hope Huckabee will use his considerable skills to do so. The national debt is no joke.

Taking stock of third parties, independents

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Three events have occurred the past two weeks that are noteworthy, particularly for the growing number of voters who call themselves independents and the small percentage who actually vote for candidates who are not Republicans or Democrats.

First, on May 29, Gov. Asa Hutchinson signed into law a bill moving Arkansas’ 2016 primary elections from May to March 1. The stated goal was to include Arkansas early with other Southern states in the so-called “SEC primary” so the state would have more of a say in who the Democrats and Republicans nominate for president. It might help Mike Huckabee in his campaign a little by giving him an early state win.

A consequence is that challengers have less time to decide if they want to run against incumbents. That’s particularly the case for independents, who unlike party-affiliated candidates must collect signatures to qualify for the ballot. Under a bill passed in 2013, independents must submit their signatures by the end of the filing period. This election, that would be November, so they must begin collecting signatures in August for an election that won’t occur for another 15 months.

Mark Moore of Pea Ridge, who ran as an independent for the state House of Representatives in 2012, says the 2013 law requiring independents to file so early is unfair and unconstitutional. After all, it gives them the same deadline to qualify for the ballot after collecting signatures that it gives party candidates to merely sign up with their filing fee. When the primary is in May, independents must collect signatures in the dead of winter. The election before the law’s passage, seven independent candidates ran for the state Legislature, including Moore, who won 39 percent of the vote in a two-person race. In 2014 after the law was passed, only one independent ran for that body.

Moore wants a return to the old law, which allowed independents to file first and then collect their signatures. He’s filed a lawsuit and says legal precedents are on his side. His day in court is July 27.

Second, Rep. Nate Bell of Mena, ironically the co-sponsor of the law Moore is suing to end, announced June 2 that he himself is now an independent and no longer a Republican. So now the 135-member Legislature has only 134 Republicans and Democrats.

The third-term legislator, known for being quite outspoken, has not given a reason for his switch other than to say it would enable him to better serve his constituents. He was a strong opponent of moving the primary to March, arguing that it was unfair to candidates and their families.

Finally, just hours after Bell’s announcement, the Libertarian Party of Arkansas submitted 15,709 signatures to the secretary of state’s office, far more than the 10,000 signatures it needed to qualify for the 2016 election as a “new” party. Arkansas law requires it to do so because its candidate for governor did not receive 3 percent of the vote in the last election. Under state law, if the Libertarians’ presidential candidate does not win 3 percent in 2016, they’ll have to collect signatures again for 2018.

Libertarians call themselves the “party of principle,” and that principle is that they want much less government. They would cut all federal government programs significantly if not completely, including Social Security and Medicare, and they also would cut defense spending while legalizing marijuana.

The party’s newly elected chairman, economist Dr. Michael Pakko, points out that every Arkansas voter had at least nine Libertarians on the ballot in 2014, including all congressional races and all state constitutional offices. In the statewide races, no Libertarian candidate won more than 6.4 percent. A numbers guy, Pakko knows the party is not ready to win major elections, but he says the party is growing and will be a viable alternative if enough voters ever decide they’ve had enough of the major parties.

The way the American political system is set up almost guarantees a two-party system, despite the fact that parties are not mentioned in the Constitution and despite George Washington imploring his fellow Founding Fathers not to succumb to party politics.

America’s economic system, meanwhile, is designed to offer unlimited choices. In the cereal aisle I have dozens of viable alternatives.

I don’t want that many choices in the voting booth. But it seems like the political system could learn from the economic system, and give me more than two.

Reforming health care reform

By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

During the next two years, the most important number in Arkansas health care may be 1332.

That’s a section of the Affordable Care Act, the one that created Obamacare, that, starting in 2017, may allow Arkansas significant flexibility in implementing the law – potentially even letting it nullify some of its more controversial elements, including the mandate that individuals buy health insurance. Or maybe not.

Legislators serving on two panels these past two weeks heard testimony regarding Section 1332. Cheryl Smith Gardner is directing the state’s changeover from a federal exchange to a state exchange, which is where small businesses and individuals buy insurance. She once was a researcher for the conservative Heritage Foundation. Dr. Lanhee Chan is a Stanford University research fellow who was the chief health advisor for Mitt Romney’s 2012 presidential campaign.

In other words, these are not left-wingers, and both of them indicated Section 1332 offers the potential for major state-based reforms to the Affordable Care Act.

In a nutshell, here’s how it would work. Beginning Jan. 1, 2017, states can receive waivers from the federal government for large sections of the law provided their reforms meet four requirements. A waiver says the law does not apply in a particular situation.

First, health plans – whether provided by insurance companies or the state – must provide coverage that is at least as comprehensive as would be provided otherwise. What does that mean? It’s not clear, but it could mean that plans in Arkansas could have a heavier focus in some areas and a lighter one in others than they currently have.

The other requirements are that out-of-pocket expenses for individuals must be no higher than they are now; coverage must be provided to a comparable number of people as otherwise would be provided; and the changes must not increase the federal budget deficit over a 10-year period.

The section is so open-ended that it appears states can propose almost anything – although one thing they can’t change is the requirement that insurance companies offer coverage regardless of pre-existing conditions. If a state can figure out a way to cover as many people without the individual and employer mandates, it can propose it. Arkansas might be able to move large parts of its population from Medicaid, which is strictly government health care, to the so-called private option, which is more flexible because it’s government-funded health care through private insurance companies. Chan said it might be possible to collectively make changes to all federal health care programs within a state’s boundaries, including Medicare, where states’ roles now are limited.

“My own view is that 1332 has the potential to be a significant step forward for those seeking market-based health care reform,” he told the Health Reform Legislative Task Force May 28. “The challenge, of course, as with any waiver is that the negotiation process has two parties. It has the state, and it has the presidential administration.”

There’s the catch: The waivers have to be approved by the secretary of Health and Human Services and the secretary of the Treasury, which includes the IRS. The skeptical lady sitting beside me was doubtful those officials will approve anything that’s not more generous to beneficiaries than Obamacare already is. Sen. Terry Rice, R-Waldron, wondered if the administration might fail to hold up its end of the bargain if a waiver were approved. When Chan said that would be “unprecedented,” Rice replied, “I appreciate that thought, but I’m one that (feels) like we’ve seen some unprecedented things.”

On the plus side, the Obama administration has proven itself willing to grant health care-related waivers. The private option, in fact, exists because of a waiver. The administration knows that the Affordable Care Act is widely distrusted in red states like Arkansas, so it has an incentive to be flexible. Judging by the questions legislators asked, most seem to be keeping an open mind. Chan’s job in 2012 was to help defeat Obama, and he seems cautiously optimistic about the possibilities.

No state has yet submitted a waiver request, and Arkansas is nowhere near doing so. In fact, most legislators only now are learning much about it. It could create a lot of work that leads nowhere and is a huge disappointment. Or it could let states creatively reform health care reform. We won’t know which will be the case until 2017 is much closer. Until then, remember the number 1332.