Blessed is the peacemaker

Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, left, and Rep. Andy Mayberry, R-Hensley, share an embrace after McGill’s speech.
By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Over the course of a three-month session, legislators make thousands of speeches at the Capitol. Last Friday, Rep. George McGill, D-Fort Smith, gave one of the most memorable – ever.

The issue was Senate Bill 519 by Sen. David Wallace, R-Leachville, and Rep. Grant Hodges, R-Rogers, which reserves each third Monday in January as a day to honor Dr. Martin Luther King.

This year, Arkansas was one of three states, the others being Alabama and Mississippi, that honored King and Gen. Robert E. Lee on the same day – the result of an unfortunate historical coincidence along with a lack of sensitivity. In 1947, Arkansas made a state holiday out of Lee’s birthday Jan. 19. King’s birthday was made a federal holiday in 1983, which meant there would be two state holidays at about the same time each year. Lawmakers did not want state employees to have another paid vacation day, so in 1985, Gov. Bill Clinton signed a bill combining the holidays.

Should do, can do about bathrooms

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Sometimes, it’s more about what the government can do instead of what it should do.

Such might be the case with the topic Governor Asa Hutchinson was hoping to avoid, a bathroom bill, the Arkansas Physical Privacy and Safety Act.

Senate Bill 774 by Sen. Linda Collins-Smith, R-Pocahontas, was discussed in the Senate Judiciary Committee Wednesday but not voted upon because a potential yes vote, Sen. Greg Standridge, R-Russellville, wasn’t present and wasn’t available by phone. It will probably be discussed again Monday as this year’s legislative session enters the home stretch.

The bill requires all multi-person restrooms and changing facilities in government buildings to be designated for one gender, defined as “a person’s immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics existing at the time of birth.” The bill requires government agencies to take “reasonable steps” to prevent individuals from entering the wrong bathrooms. Government entities, including schools, could be sued up to four years after an unwanted intrusion, with plaintiffs able to recover damages “for all psychological, emotional, and physical harm suffered.”

Why this year’s Legislature wouldn’t make much of a movie

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

A good movie features lead characters facing a high-stakes challenge that they overcome after considerable tension and drama, leading to a satisfying conclusion. If that’s the case, this year’s General Assembly of the Arkansas Legislature would not be much of a movie.

Consider what recent sessions have involved. In the 1990s and 2000s, state legislators were forced to react to the Lake View court case, so they spent billions of additional dollars on schools and engaged in impassioned debates about consolidation. Since 2013, each regular and fiscal session has revolved around a similar central plot point: Should the private option be created/continued/modified into Arkansas Works? Like sequels that are similar to the original, legislators each time debated questions about the role of state government regarding that program, which uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private health insurance for low-income individuals. In 2015, additional drama was created by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), which was about citizens’ ability to refuse to participate in activities they said violated their conscience but which opponents said allowed them to discriminate. That issue brought crowds of protestors to the Capitol and national attention to Arkansas.

We won the lottery, but who bought the ticket?

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Should welfare recipients be required to pay back the state if they win the lottery? Maybe the better question is, should all of us?

Those questions came to mind after hearing a presentation by Rep. John Payton, R-Wilburn, of his House Bill 1825 before the House Rules Committee at the State Capitol Wednesday.

The bill would require lottery winners to reimburse the state for their last 10 years of Department of Human Services benefits, such as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly the food stamp program.

Payton said the lottery is a bad deal for poor people, who gamble their sparse dollars with the odds stacked mightily against them. This arrangement would make them think twice about doing that and remind them that their benefits come from the taxpayers.