Government should protect freedom, not enforce belief

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

Arkansas House Bill 1228, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, doesn’t actually say anything about gay rights. What it says is, “A state action shall not substantially burden a person’s right to exercise of religion … unless it is demonstrated that … (it) is essential to further a compelling governmental interest; and is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”

Of course gay rights is what led to the bill and is what everyone is talking about. But the more important issue is one fundamental to any society: To what degree should majority values be enforced on a minority?

In this case, what once was the majority view – marriage involves only a man and a woman – rapidly has become the minority view. And yet that view still is held by many people with sincere religious beliefs. The most famous example is photographer Elaine Huguenin, a Christian who was fined $7,000 after declining to take photographs at a lesbian wedding ceremony. That fine was upheld by the New Mexico Supreme Court. The U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case.

The bill’s sponsor, Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville, says the standard for protecting religious belief has been lowered and needs to be raised. Arkansas’ bill is similar to a federal law signed by President Clinton in 1993 and ones passed by 20 states. President Obama voted for Illinois’ as a state senator – though Illinois also has stronger protections for homosexuals. Most of these laws weren’t related to gay rights at the time they were passed, according to the fact-checking site Politifact.

Indiana, which recently passed a similar law, is really feeling the heat, but so is Arkansas, and it may get hotter. On Monday, protestors chanted “Shame on you!” at a stone-faced Ballinger as he left a committee room. The gay rights group Human Rights Campaign published a full-page ad in the San Jose Mercury News, which serves Silicon Valley, saying Arkansas is “closed for business due to discrimination.” Walmart and officials with Acxiom have opposed the bill.

A little empathy – and a little less shouting – might be in order here. If you are not gay, imagine how you might feel had you been subjected to ridicule since childhood and if the state had passed an amendment banning gay marriage in 2004? You might be wary of any law you think is aimed at you. And for those who say House Bill 1228 is legalized bigotry, would you want the government forcing you to participate in a ceremony that violates your beliefs? Then why do you want that to happen to Elaine Huguenin?

In a committee meeting on Monday, Rep. David Whitaker, D-Little Rock, asked if the bill could include a non-discrimination amendment. Ballinger said the issue should be debated and considered in a separate bill.

That would be good. It’s a difficult balancing act, but the law must try to protect people’s right to pursue happiness at the same time it protects other people’s right to believe and act as their consciences direct. Probably more time should be taken to consider how that’s done, and in fact that may be happening.

In 2004, I was one of the 25 percent of Arkansans who voted against the state’s anti-gay marriage amendment. I did so because government should not “define” marriage or stick its nose into how two people live their lives.

But I also support the intent of this bill. So I guess it comes down to this: Two people ought to be able to live how they want to live, but the government shouldn’t make another person take pictures of it.

The older I get, the more I’m convinced that while we say we believe in freedom, we don’t mean it. Apparently, it’s a fundamental aspect of human nature to use government to force people to agree with us. At its worse, it’s truly terrible, as history has shown. More often, it results in a slow erosion of freedom – sometimes in one direction, sometimes the other, but ultimately to the detriment of all.

House Bill 1228 is the latest battle in this culture war – a war usually framed as involving two sides – those who want the government to enforce conservative personal beliefs, and those who want it to enforce liberal personal beliefs.

There is a third side – we who want the government to focus on protecting freedom, including for those with whom we disagree.

Join our side. All are welcome.

Bumpy ride on highways may continue

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

On Interstate 40 near Brinkley a couple of weeks ago, I drove past a sign reading something like, “Caution: pothole ahead.” I can’t recall ever before seeing a road sign like that on an interstate, but it was certainly accurate. Actually, “crater” would have been a better word.

These roads are a mess. They may stay that way for a while.

The Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department this week announced it was suspending 50 planned overlay projects. In fact, it has cancelled its entire $50 million annual overlay program, which extends the life of highways. According to the Highway Department, an overlay project costs $200,000 a mile. Reconstructing a highway costs $1.5 million a mile.

The department made this decision because it doesn’t have money for the overlays and doesn’t know when it will. Highway programs are funded mostly through federal and state motor fuels taxes, plus, since 2008, money shifted from the overall federal budget (with part of that bill handed to our kids and grandkids). Seventy percent of Arkansas’ highway construction money comes from the federal government. To collect it, Arkansas bills the government weekly for projects it’s doing.

Unfortunately, the department can’t be sure the government will pay up. The federal Highway Trust Fund, which nearly ran out of money last year until Congress replenished it with one-year gimmicks, will run out of money again May 31. That’s two months from now.

The problem is that highways are funded mostly through a declining source of revenue. The gas tax has not changed since 1993 at the federal level and since 2001 at the state level. Cars use less gas than they did back then, so drivers buy fewer gallons and therefore pay fewer taxes per mile. Meanwhile, roads have become more expensive to construct and maintain.

Yes, there’s waste in highways just like there is in every other government program, but even the most ardent anti-tax Republicans agree there’s a funding problem. However, members of both parties either oppose or are afraid of raising the gas tax. So at the state level, legislators offered some suggestions during this past session, none of which passed. Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, tried to transfer money from the general fund to highways. That bill died because Gov. Asa Hutchinson was opposed, along with other groups that get money from that same fund. Rep. Prissy Hickerson, R-Texarkana, filed a bill that would have allowed the Highway Commission to reduce the size of the state’s highway system – the nation’s 12th largest – by dropping off little-used miles. Presumably, the counties would have been responsible for them, but they didn’t want that responsibility. Rep. Mat Pitsch, R-Fort Smith, filed a bill to create a pilot program where Arkansas would study a vehicle miles traveled tax, where drivers pay taxes based on how many miles they drive. It’s been withdrawn.

There is some movement, at least in Arkansas. After opposing Douglas’ bill, Hutchinson agreed to appoint a task force shortly after the session to study highway funding. Hutchinson said the task force’s work could lead to a special session. It’s not clear what the task force will recommend that hasn’t been recommended before, but it’s a start. As Douglas told me before he pulled his bill, “We’ve shaken the tree. The coconuts have fallen, and now we need to figure out how we’re going to make coconut cream pie.”

At the federal level? Congress needs to do what it used to do, which is pass a bill that fully funds highway projects for five or six years, so state highway departments can plan, and to fund it transparently, not with funny money. What will probably happen is that Congress will wait until the last minute and then throw together a stopgap measure to buy time and avoid making hard choices. Which is what it did last year.

“Everybody’s coming up with options, but the options seem to be more of the same,” said AHTD Director Scott Bennett, who is clearly frustrated. “We’re going to find a way to shore up the trust fund for a year, and that will give us time to talk about a real solution. And the time to talk about a real solution is now.”

If they pass only a one-year measure, then the next time the subject comes up will be in the middle of a presidential election, when not much constructive happens. Looks like it’s going to be a bumpy ride, in more ways than one.

Starving the beast only made it hungrier

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

Some time in the 1970s, the Republican Party pledged allegiance to a strategy known as “starve the beast,” which said that the way to reduce the size of government was to reduce the taxes going into it. President Reagan in 1981 used another metaphor: reducing children’s allowance. Democrats, happy to increase government without paying for it, largely acquiesced.

That gentlemen’s agreement has led to a sustained period where government has collected much less in taxes than it’s spent. In 1980, the national debt was less than $1 trillion. Today, it’s more than $18 trillion.

The strategy obviously didn’t work. In fact, starving the beast has only made it hungrier, for two reasons.

One is that government is not a child, and it’s not bound by the same rules as the rest of us. It does not need an allowance because it can always forcibly borrow from the future – until that day, which is coming eventually, when something will happen so that it no longer can.

It also didn’t work because of a fundamental principle of economics those starve-the-beasters should have known, which is that people typically buy more of something when it’s cheaper, and less when it’s more expensive.

Since 1980, the United States government has outspent the Soviet Union to win the Cold War and has fought many other “hot wars,” including the unending ones in Iraq and Afghanistan. Spending on Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other government health care programs has ballooned.

As a percentage of gross domestic product, government spending is about the same as it was in 1980. But that’s a mirage. Very expensive, unbreakable promises have been made to seniors, federal pensioners, and health care recipients that will cause government to grow. Money that should have been invested in the Social Security and Medicare trust funds to prepare for the retirement of the baby boomers instead was spent elsewhere. Meanwhile, important investments in other areas have been delayed, such as maintaining the nation’s highways and bridges.

Why did the American people allow all of this? Because we haven’t felt the costs of our decisions enough to demand change. In fact, we’re the ones who demand that the status quo continue, and why wouldn’t we? Year after year, we’re getting government at a huge discount at our kids’ expense. We don’t want to pay full price, and we punish those elected officials who ask us to do so.

“Starve the beast” doesn’t require hard choices or ask Americans to take responsibility for their actions. Just cut taxes (“Yippee!) and the government will sort of lose weight on its own. It works for everyone: Republicans, Democrats, and average Americans – everyone, that is, except future taxpayers.

Unfortunately, “starve the beast” is not only alive and well, but it remains Republican Party orthodoxy. Many Republican elected officials, including many Arkansas state legislators and the state’s entire congressional delegation, have signed the Americans for Tax Reform’s “Taxpayer Protection Pledge” stating that they won’t raise taxes. Meanwhile, they did not sign a corresponding “No more spending pledge.”

In other words, we do not promise to keep government from growing, but we do promise not to pay for it when it does. See the problem?

The only way the government will stop growing is if we actually start paying for it. No one wants to pay more taxes, including me, but – and it will probably take a balanced budget amendment to make this work – we should pay for the full cost of the government we have chosen to create. We also should start paying down the debt we’ve already accumulated.

The thing about taking responsibility for your actions is that it makes you change your actions. We should feel the effects of big government every time we collect a paycheck and every time we go to the store. Never again should a war be fought where civilians pay no extra cost. If taxpayers start paying the full cost of government, then it almost certainly will shrink. But If we decide we like big government, at least we’ll admit it and pay for it honestly, without all the debt and hypocrisy.

It’s time to finally realize, after all of these years, that WE are the beast. We’re the ones getting fatter, at our children’s expense.

When will we realize it? When we actually pay for our government – and give ourselves a chance to start feeling full.

Common Core test survives battle

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

The latest battle over the Common Core was fought Wednesday in the Senate Education Committee, where Rep. Mark Lowery, R-Maumelle, presented a bill that would remove Arkansas not from the Common Core, but from the new PARCC assessment that students take as part of the Common Core. The result is that Arkansas is still part of PARCC.

The Common Core is a set of standards in math and English language arts/literacy, while the PARCC assessment measures progress and compares students in different states. PARCC originally involved 24 states, including Arkansas, which has had a leading role in its development. Other states were part of a different consortium.

Common Core’s supporters, including educators and business leaders, say it provides more consistency and clarity to America’s schools, and that it teaches students more relevant stuff. Before Common Core, we in Arkansas were patting ourselves on the back because scores had improved on state exams while not knowing how those scores compared to students in other states. Maybe Arkansas schools were getting better, or maybe not.

But many others say Common Core represents a federal intrusion. It’s become one of the biggest issues in Republican Party politics, and states have been dropping out of PARCC. Now only nine states are involved, plus the District of Columbia, and for a while this session, Arkansas looked like it might be leaving as well. The House passed Lowery’s bill, 86-1.

In the Senate Education Committee, Lowery argued that the online assessment is full of technical glitches and that it will not protect students’ personal data from prying eyes. The bill’s opponents and the state Department of Education countered that the test is going mostly smoothly, especially considering this is the first year, and that students’ privacy would be maintained.

In the end, the motion to pass the bill died for lack of a second, though senators later passed it with an amendment that weakens the bill nearly to the point of irrelevance. The committee amended the bill, slightly, again on Friday. Arkansas is still part of PARCC. Senators decided it didn’t make sense to end Arkansas’ association with the exam without something to replace it. They’ll hear about this from Common Core opponents.

I asked Lowery if he had any doubts. Not about the PARCC exam, he replied, but he does go back and forth when it comes to Common Core itself.

That’s understandable, because it’s a tough issue. The people who know best, teachers, have varying opinions. I think I’m for it, but I understand why people have reservations.

I’m on firmer ground with these observations.

– The standards themselves are not really the problem. Early in the Common Core debate, opponents argued that the standards are inadequate. They still argue that, but that part of the debate seems to have died down. Too many teachers seem to like them, or at least aren’t raising that much of a ruckus.

– The debate isn’t really about education. This is really the same argument we have all the time about the federal government’s role, with the volume turned up extra high. Much of this is political, and part of it is about President Obama, unfortunately. No Child Left Behind, signed into law in 2002 by President Bush, represents a far greater federal intrusion into education than Common Core does. It says the government can punish entire schools if a single student doesn’t do well enough on a test, and yet there was no public outcry when it was passed. It was a different time, but part of the reason we have Common Core is that everyone had to figure out what to do with No Child Left Behind.

– The federal government never should have gotten involved (which, of course, it inevitably would). Part of the Common Core’s appeal was that it was pushed originally by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. When the U.S. Department of Education started handing out Common Core-related grants, it became an Obama thing.

– The Common Core came into existence in Arkansas the wrong way, by a vote by the Arkansas State Board of Education during a meeting in 2010. Hardly anyone knew what was happening, and then parents were trying to check their kids’ weird math problems. This big of a change required more of a statewide discussion, if such a thing is possible.

– People who are maddest at the Common Care are maddest at the wrong thing. See the part about No Child Left Behind.

New law saves good small schools

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

Bruce Cozart sponsored Act 377.

Bruce Cozart sponsored Act 377.

Sometimes the Legislature gets it wrong, sometimes it gets it right, and sometimes it gets it right after getting it wrong for a while.

The last was the case with Act 377, signed last week by Gov. Asa Hutchinson, which lets the Arkansas State Board of Education grant waivers from consolidation to school districts that fall below the usual 350-student threshold. As a result of that bill by Rep. Bruce Cozart, R-Hot Springs, a school district can remain open if it is not in fiscal, academic or facilities distress, and if keeping it open is in the best interest of students because of long bus rides.

The 350-student minimum was created in 2003 in response to court rulings in the Lake View case that put the state and its taxpayers firmly in charge of ensuring all students’ education opportunities are “adequate” and “equitable.” (The Arkansas Constitution uses the words “general, suitable and efficient.”)

The thinking was that districts must have at least that many students to provide the necessary economies of scale to accomplish those objectives, which is usually true. Generally, districts with less than 350 students cannot cost-effectively provide high-level math and science courses and other opportunities students need. Those districts typically are in declining communities that the rest of the state’s taxpayers are not responsible for propping up. Above all, policymakers feared that messing with the funding formula would land the state back in court. Every major education decision is made with that firmly in mind.

The result of all this is that, according to the Arkansas Rural Community Alliance, 53 high schools and 48 elementary schools have been closed. For the sake of both students and taxpayers, many of them probably should have been.

The problem with that arbitrary 350-student minimum is it confuses “impossible” with merely “difficult.” Against the odds, the Weiner School District was doing well. Its academics were among the best in the state. Its facilities were good. Its finances not only were sound, but its citizens recently had voted to raise their own taxes.

It didn’t matter. Because it fell below that magic number, it was forced to consolidate in 2010 with its larger neighbor, Harrisburg, whose students were not achieving at the same levels as students in Weiner. There’s still a Weiner Elementary School, but older students travel to Harrisburg now. To this day, taxpayers who live in Weiner pay higher millage rates than those who live in Harrisburg. So far, the district’s patrons have voted not to change that situation.

Michelle Cadle stood behind Hutchinson as he signed the bill into law and was handed one of the pens he used. Her family lives in what once was the Weiner School District. Her youngest child attends Weiner Elementary, but she drives her oldest to the Valley View School District 20 miles away.

The loss still stings, but she has chosen to channel her emotion into becoming an advocate for small schools. “We always said it was never about Weiner,” she said. “It was about doing what was right for all schools across Arkansas, so this was a victory day for us.”

Hutchinson made it clear that the law is “forward looking.” In other words, it can’t be used to reopen the Weiner district. Still, Cadle said the community is looking for alternatives.

There wasn’t strong opposition to this bill. It doesn’t do away with the 350-student minimum. It merely gives the State Board of Education a tool to use when there’s an exception to the rule, like Weiner. Districts in decline still will be consolidated.

More generally, education policymakers are concerned about the lack of institutional memory in the Capitol. Because of term limits, very few legislators were in office when the Lake View case was decided. The more the case shrinks in the rearview mirror, the more it will be forgotten – until somebody sues again.

That’s a valid concern. However, the fear of that happening shouldn’t lead the state to repeat a past mistake – or put more and more kids on long bus rides unnecessarily. Regardless of its size, if a district’s students are performing well, if its finances are sound, and if its facilities are in good shape, it shouldn’t be consolidated. It should be duplicated.

That letter to Iran

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

We may have reached the point where the U.S. government has moved past “does not work” to “cannot work” – not in the current environment, anyway, and we need to decide what to do about that.

A couple of recent examples illustrate.

One is Congress’ inability to respond to President Obama’s decision not to enforce part of immigration law. When that kind of thing happens, Congress must reassert itself. Instead, it did nothing because congressional Democrats placed party loyalty over their branch of government’s responsibility.

The second is that letter sent to Iran’s leaders by 47 Senate Republicans that was initiated by Sen. Tom Cotton and signed by Sen. John Boozman. The letter said that any nuclear arms deal will constitute only an executive agreement unless it is approved by Congress, and that it can be rescinded by the next president, anyway. “President Obama will leave office in January 2017, while most of us will remain in office well beyond then – perhaps decades,” wrote the party that used to be for term limits.

The Constitution in Article II says, “The President… shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur …” Obama says this is not a treaty, but whatever you call the paper that eventually is signed, the Senate is supposed to have a major role in determining foreign policy.

The president has not successfully sought the advice and consent of the Senate. He should. But if he did, nothing short of killing Osama bin Laden would get two-thirds agreement these days – another reason to wonder if we’re moving from “does not work” to “cannot work.”

Traditionally, politics has stopped at the water’s edge, but then, traditionally, the parties have seen each other merely as opponents. The real enemies were only outside the border, like the Soviet Union. Surely there are other ways for our system to work than for one branch of government to be communicating one message to a dangerous foreign power while another branch communicates something else. Can you imagine any other walk of life where this kind of squabbling would lead to a good result?

There are other ways of doing democracy. In a British parliamentary system, the prime minister is always a member of Parliament’s ruling party. That party calls all the shots, and it’s the loyal opposition’s job to loyally oppose. If the prime minister loses the support of the party, Britain gets a new prime minister.

Great Britain’s system is not necessarily better, but it is different, and our system does not work/cannot work if our elected officials act like we’re British. Their system is designed with parties in mind, Ours is based on a system of checks and balances where party loyalty is second to branch responsibility, and where the parties govern together when possible.

Some members in Congress are trying to pass a bill that would require congressional approval of any nuclear deal with Iran. The sponsor, Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, is a Republican who did not sign the letter. Obama says he will veto the bill if it ever makes it to his desk. If he does, that veto should be overridden by congressional Republicans and Democrats fulfilling their duty – by writing legislation as a body, not letters to the ayatollah as a party. That bipartisan legislation is now less likely because of this letter.

Can that kind of responsible governance happen these days? The writers of the Constitution could not have anticipated how democracy and technology would evolve – that billions of dollars would be spent on campaigns, that 24-hour news stations and the internet would let normal people obsess over politics nonstop, and that our personal data would be used to manipulate us. Meanwhile, other things they did fear – a semi-permanent ruling class, a large federal government – have not been prevented.

In other words, is it that the system does not work, or that it cannot work? Can American democracy function in its current form, or does it need a tweak, or does it need a complete overhaul? Have times changed, or have flaws in the foundation been revealed, or can we work with what we have?

We’d better decide, because we really must fix our immigration system, and we certainly can’t let Iran get a nuclear bomb.

Tough task for health care task force

Jim Hendren is one of the chairmen of the health care task force.

Jim Hendren is one of the chairmen of the health care task force.

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

Sixteen legislators will spend the next 22 months trying to figure out how to do what no one has been able to figure out so far – cost-effectively provide health care to lower-income people without growing government and making more people dependent upon it.

Also, they must try to produce a proposal that would be supported by 75 percent of the Legislature and the governor. Meanwhile, the Supreme Court this year will issue a ruling on Obamacare that could throw the entire health care system into disarray.

The group is called the Arkansas Health Care Reform Legislative Task Force. Tough task, huh?

The task force was created earlier this legislative session as Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s way of resolving the impasse over the private option. He doesn’t want it simply to go away without a replacement.

The private option was Arkansas’ response to the Affordable Care Act’s requirement that states expand their Medicaid populations, and the Supreme Court’s subsequent ruling that it had to be only optional. Many Republican-leaning states turned down federal money rather than grow Medicaid. Arkansas used that money to buy private insurance for 200,000 people, and counting.

Now Arkansas is leading the nation in the reduction of its uninsured population. According to a recent Gallup poll, the percentage of Arkansans without insurance dropped in one year from 22.5 to 11.4 percent. The private option will bring $1.3 billion in federal funds to the state in 2015. Without it, rural hospitals would probably close, as they have in states that turned down the money.

But the private option is rightfully controversial. It has roots in Obamacare. While the federal government is paying for almost all of it now, the state’s share grows over time – supposedly to 10 percent, but who knows with the federal government these days? Legislative opponents say this is how the $18 trillion national debt keeps growing. Everyone always has a hand out.

Because the private option involves spending money, it must pass with 75 percent majorities each year, and it’s barely done that twice. This year did not look promising, so Hutchinson asked legislators to form the task force to consider not only how to change (and surely rename) the private option, but also to consider broader Medicaid reforms.

The 16-member task force by design is split between legislators who have consistently voted for and against it. If this were Washington, it would accomplish nothing, but Little Rock is not Washington. The sponsor of the legislation creating the task force, Sen. Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, expects it to make progress “because we’re going to act like grown-ups.”

Hendren has been a private option opponent because he believes it’s unsustainable at both the state and federal levels. However, he recognizes that the old system – lots of uninsured people getting charity care in emergency rooms – wasn’t working. Plus, you can’t just yank insurance away from 200,000 people. Plus, he’s Hutchinson’s nephew. So what now? Ideally, he said, the task force will create something that will “meet the needs of those people that need it and encourage them to improve their station in life, and we also do it in a financially sustainable way.”

For many reasons, the culture in Little Rock is much more collaborative than in Washington, D.C. Unlike in our nation’s capital, state legislators tend to meet somewhere in the middle. Moreover, the lines between private option supporters and opponents can be somewhat blurred, Hendren said. “Obviously we’re not going to have a society in Arkansas where people can’t get health care at all. It’s just a question of how we deliver that in an affordable way,” he said.

The task force’s other Senate members are Sens. David Sanders, R-Little Rock; Jason Rapert, R-Conway; Linda Chesterfield, D-Little Rock; Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis; Terry Rice, R-Waldron; John Cooper, R-Jonesboro; and Cecile Bledsoe, R-Rogers. House members are Reps. David Meeks, R-Conway; Joe Farrer, R-Austin; Justin Boyd, R-Fort Smith; Michelle Gray, R-Melbourne; Charlie Collins, R-Fayetteville; David Murdock, D-Marianna; Deborah Ferguson, D-West Memphis; and Kim Hammer, R-Benton.

They must produce their first report by the end of the year. They won’t “solve” health care, but they will produce something useful. No one will get everything they want, and they’ll accept that, like grown-ups.

Can states save the federal government?

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

Common Core cover cutoutThe thing about human nature is that we resist the big change until there’s a crisis, even though we know a crisis is inevitable if we stick with the status quo.

It often takes a diagnosis for us to quit smoking or change our diets. Some alcoholics must lose everything before they’ll finally seek help.

On the other hand, some people do make lifestyle changes before they absolutely must. Can a society do the same?

On March 2, the national debt stood at $18,149,954,531,765.07, according to the U.S. Treasury Department’s website. That’s $57,000 per American.

The government has been in debt since 1835, but the numbers have been soaring lately. It took two centuries to reach $1 trillion in 1980 and then 35 years to add $17 trillion to that.

There have been a few years when the government did not add to the debt, but not many. Debt has been an ever-present part of America’s past – and unfortunately, its foreseeable future. The federal government’s own Congressional Budget Office predicts the debt will increase $7.7 trillion over the next 10 years. The debt then will continue to rise because of the government’s many unfunded promises.

Someday there will be a reckoning. You can’t keep adding debt forever. And yet Washington seems incapable of stopping this train wreck from happening. So can the states do it?

In the State Capitol on Wednesday, the House of Representatives voted to advance the Compact for a Balanced Budget, a national effort to amend the U.S. Constitution. It now goes to the Senate.

The Constitution has been amended 27 times, the first 10 amendments being the Bill of Rights. With each amendment, Congress has initiated the process.

However, under the Constitution’s Article V, the process can be initiated by states instead of Congress. Thirty-four states must agree to a call, Congress must make the call, the delegates must meet to propose amendments, and then 38 states must approve those amendments. It’s never been done before.

The Compact for a Balanced Budget spells out exactly what the convention would do and how it would do it. Delegates would vote for a single amendment saying the government cannot spend more than it collects unless it borrows under a debt limit that can be increased only with approval by state legislatures. It also requires a two-thirds vote by Congress for most tax increases.

The previous day, the House voted against a resolution advancing the Convention of the States, another national effort to amend the Constitution through the Article V process. That effort would let delegates consider a balanced budget amendment but also others that would limit the government’s power and scope. Supporters tried again on Friday and narrowly passed it through the House. It now goes to the Senate as well.

I like the Compact’s approach much better, but I understand why people are opposed to both. A balanced budget amendment could rob Congress of the flexibility it needs in a crisis. It could be ignored. Or it could give the Supreme Court an outsized say in taxing and spending matters. Clearly, the Convention of the States is a conservative movement meant to reduce the size of the federal government, which many Americans don’t really want to do.

Other arguments against the Article V approach are not as persuasive. Some fear a “runaway convention” where delegates make scary changes to the Constitution. That’s hard to imagine. Remember, whatever the convention proposes must then be ratified by 38 states, one at a time. It’s far more likely the process either would produce nothing, or something so watered down as to be meaningless.

Some are opposed to amending the Constitution because they say it is just fine like it is. Thank goodness that argument didn’t carry the day before passage of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, or the 19th, which ensured women have the right to vote.

The framers of the Constitution gave us a wonderful document, but it has become increasingly obvious since 1835 that it contains a flaw: The government has many incentives to create debt without a mechanism to discourage it. Thomas Jefferson recognized that flaw in 1798.

The framers also understood their own imperfections, and humanity’s, as well as the fact that times change. That’s why they made it possible to amend the Constitution, with great difficulty.

They wisely included the Article V provision. Congress can’t always be trusted, so a democratic process was needed to bypass it – before a crisis occurs, preferably.

Is America governable?

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

U.S. Capitol for blogThe American republic has limped past being dysfunctional and stumbled into being ungovernable. Even if you hate the government, this situation should concern you because it means big problems aren’t being addressed, while new ones are being created.

Two current legislative fights illustrate this reality – No Child Left Behind and the broken immigration system.

Congress has yet again stalled on its long overdue reauthorization of No Child Left Behind. That’s bad, because this law is completely unworkable. Signed by President George W. Bush in 2002 and passed with bipartisan support, it required that 100 percent of American students in grades 3-12 test at their grade level by the end of the 2014 school year, or the federal government would punish the schools where they didn’t. That’s every single child, regardless of language difficulty or intellectual challenge – a requirement so ridiculous that Congress ought to fix it, but it can’t. As a result, the Obama administration has been granting waivers to states telling them how they can disobey the law.

The president is supposed to enforce the law, and Congress is supposed to write laws that make sense, right?

The same applies to immigration. The president wants to ignore the laws Congress has passed, and Congress can’t agree on how to fund the Department of Homeland Security in response. Meanwhile, the border remains porous, and millions of people live in the shadows among us. Children brought here by their parents basically have no home country. Meanwhile, the United States quite effectively limits the influx of skilled overseas workers – exactly the people we need.

If these two issues were outliers, we could deal with them. Unfortunately, they’re the norm. A few other examples …

The national debt. Uncle Sam now owes $18 trillion, or the equivalent of $57,000 for each American. The debt has doubled since 2007 and tripled since 2001, and it’s still rising. The only possible solution is to reduce spending substantially while collecting more revenues somehow. There’s not a remote possibility that Republicans and Democrats in Washington will agree to do that.

Health care. Prior to the Obama administration, the United States already had the world’s most expensive health care system. It denied insurance because of pre-existing conditions and stopped paying for patient claims if they became too expensive. Then the Affordable Care Act was rushed through Congress, causing its own problems and leading to who-knows-what. Now the act faces a serious Supreme Court challenge over its wording regarding federal exchange subsidies. Pulling this leg from the stool could cause Obamacare to collapse. Lots of people would be happy about that, but … what’s the plan after that?

Infrastructure. The gas tax, which funds highways, has not been raised at the federal level since 1993. It is destined to produce less and less revenue because cars are becoming more fuel efficient through both market and government demands. Everybody knows the model is unsustainable, but there’s no agreement on its replacement.

It won’t be enough to vote for different people in 2016. Washington simply doesn’t work any more, regardless of who is in office.

That’s because Washington reflects American society, which itself is marked by contradictions and divisions. We simply don’t agree on how to solve problems, or even about what the problems are. We’re deeply divided culturally, morally, about what we want this place to look like, and about what we think it once was. That lack of consensus makes it very hard to solve difficult issues. Moreover, Americans say they don’t trust government but then choose to be profoundly dependent upon it, rarely recognizing the irony. The result is that we grow government without paying for it.

This is a depressing column, so let’s close with solutions. Congressional term limits? A balanced budget amendment? Campaign finance reform? All could help.

Meanwhile, many decisions should be returned to the state level, where democracy still manages to work sometimes. Red, blue and purple states could solve problems in their own ways, often learning from each other. Americans would be free to settle in states where they felt most comfortable.

This could cause its own problems, including irreconcilable legal definitions of discrimination and a race to the bottom on environmental regulations. A poor state like Arkansas might find its niche, or it might just get poorer.

Something big has to happen – bigger than the next election. When a country becomes ungovernable, problems can’t be solved simply by electing different people to that government.

Hutchinson has rookie’s enthusiasm – but not about highways

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

Asa for web

Being governor is not a job where practice makes perfect. In fact, in many ways, a governor is at his or her best as a beginner.

A new governor is fresh off the victory speech and is running off the adrenaline from the transition to power. He has a new title that carries with it an air of authority. He has ideas he can’t wait to implement. He hasn’t grown cynical from lost battles or grown paranoid from all the criticism. He’s younger than he’ll ever be again.

Circumstances can serve to magnify those early advantages. Gov. Asa Hutchinson came into office as the first Republican governor with a Republican Legislature since shortly after the Civil War. His predecessor, Gov. Mike Beebe, entered office after a landslide victory (over Hutchinson). Beebe’s predecessor, Gov. Mike Huckabee, became governor after demonstrating firm leadership amidst Gov. Jim Guy Tucker’s last-minute indecision about resigning.

Some of Huckabee’s and Beebe’s most notable policy accomplishments came early in their administrations. For Huckabee, it was ARKids First and the conservation tax. In his first session, Beebe and the Legislature increased school funding and cut the grocery tax in half.

They both were fine governors, but as would be the case with anyone, we’re better off that the Arkansas Constitution ensures we get some fresh blood in there after a while.

A good example of this is prison reform. This was not a focus of Hutchinson’s during the campaign, but it has become one now, and it may be the issue that most defines him when it’s all said and done. The state’s prisons are currently so overcapacity that 2,500 inmates are being housed in county jails. However, the state can’t afford to keep building cells, and simply letting inmates out of jail isn’t the best solution because many have a drug or alcohol problem, and 43 percent return to prison soon after being released. The only long-term solution, Hutchinson said, is to change inmates’ behavior, so his prison reform plan would create transitional centers to help parolees re-enter society.

Hutchinson was his usual reserved self when announcing his plans, but there was a fire in his eyes that I suspect won’t quite be there seven years from now. Again, fresh blood is a good thing.

Which brings us to highways. Last Feb. 19, Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, testified before a House panel in favor of House Bill 1346 by Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, which would dedicate for highways sales tax revenues from the purchases of new and used cars and car parts.

Bennett has given this presentation so many times that he probably could do it in his sleep. The state has $20.3 billion in highway needs over the next 10 years but only $3.6 billion in expected revenues. While construction costs are rising, the primary means of funding highways, federal and state motor fuels taxes, have not been increased for decades and are producing less revenue because cars are becoming more fuel efficient. Yes, Arkansas voters passed an interstate bond issue in 2011 and a half-cent sales tax for highways in 2012. Together, those will affect less than 4 percent of the state’s roadways.

Bennett has been in his position long enough that the fire in his eyes that day was accompanied by a hint of desperation and frustration in his voice. Two years ago, a similar bill started out with broad support, but it failed under opposition from competing interests who feared highways would take a bigger slice of their pie. Gov. Beebe was adamantly opposed, and it failed.

Douglas’ bill did pass out of the committee, but, near the end of the meeting, Hutchinson’s Department of Finance and Administration director, Larry Walther, testified against it, saying it would create holes in the state budget. That was an ominous sign for the bill’s supporters: It meant Hutchinson is opposed. Highways at this point are not his thing – not at the expense of other things, anyway. This week, Douglas announced that, because of the governor’s opposition, he was putting the bill on hold for a while.

The funding model for highways is not sustainable, at the state or national levels. Highways and bridges that aren’t properly maintained now will have to be replaced later, at much higher costs.

How soon the problem is addressed matters. A lot more gets done when there’s fresh blood in the Governor’s Mansion and the governor still has fire in his eyes.