“That girl” makes good money as a welder

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

If you were asked to describe a welder, it probably wouldn’t be much like Tori Huggins.

The 29-year-old graduated Hendrix College in 2007 an All-American in basketball with a degree in theatre and kinesiology – and $40,000 in debt she couldn’t repay.

“I was that girl that went back to my parents’ house, living in the basement,” she said.

Many years earlier, Huggins had been singed by a spark while her dad was welding and refused to go anywhere near the activity again. But during college summer breaks, she’d done some basic welding in a boat factory in her hometown of Clinton, and she continued working there after college.

After a tornado destroyed the factory, she decided to get serious about welding and discovered she loved it. Soon she was traveling the country working in nuclear power plants and earning enough to pay off her debt in three years. She bought a car and a house in Conway.

Today, she teaches welding at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Joint Apprenticeship Center in Little Rock, a state-funded program where 12 students learn a skill that in 18 weeks will take many of them from minimum wage backgrounds to $18 an hour. She tries to encourage more women to follow her example. Classes are free and also available in Fort Smith and El Dorado. The school’s phone number is 501-562-4482.

Huggins this past Tuesday shared her story during a panel discussion at Jobs Now, a summit sponsored by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. Before an audience of 500, she wore a smart business suit and spoke confidently alongside her fellow big shots on stage.

The conference’s purpose was to consider ways to match unemployed and underemployed Arkansas workers, like Huggins once was, with the tens of thousands of skilled trade jobs that are remaining unfilled and those that will be available as older workers retire. Steve Williams, CEO of Maverick Transportation, said he had parked 100 18-wheelers because he couldn’t find reliable drivers. That job starts at $52,000.

Two common mentalities clearly need to go by the wayside.

One is that learning a trade is somehow inferior to going to college. Too often, young people are encouraged to make good grades so they can get a scholarship – and if they don’t go to college, well, maybe they can get a job in construction or something. Skilled tradesmen often earn higher salaries than college graduates, and their jobs require no less brainwork.

“We don’t put in nuclear powerhouses by being a bunch of idiots,” Huggins told me. “You’ve got to know offsets, you’ve got to do fractions and multiplication and all this stuff, and at times even a little bit of calculus here and there.”

The other outdated attitude is that “getting an education” means leaving home for four years after high school. Colleges and universities should be oriented toward nimbly moving students of all ages to employability in an ever-shifting economy. Moreover, as Dr. Glen Fenter, president of Mid-South Community College, said during the panel discussion with Huggins, all students should graduate high school with a job skill, not just a diploma.

Some of this is already happening – the state-funded Plumbers and Pipefitters Joint Apprenticeship Center being an example. At Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, some students, instead of earning credit hours, obtain certificates that move them straight into jobs with Walmart and its suppliers. Many high school students take concurrent credit classes that shorten their college careers. At Maumelle High School, students declare a “pathway” and leave school with a marketable skill.

How do we get more of this? Joe Quinn, Walmart’s senior director of pubic affairs and government relations, said in the panel discussion that the next governor should make workforce development a signature issue.

Both Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross have shared ideas on the campaign trail. Hutchinson favors economic development plans tying together high schools and two-year-colleges based on regional opportunities. Ross has called for sending reports home with eighth and 11th grade students projecting common careers and salaries when they enter the workforce. “Too many people today are going to college and getting degrees in what makes them feel good rather than where the jobs are,” Ross told school board members this summer.

That’s sort of what happened to Huggins, but in a good way. She got a degree that made her feel good, and now she has a career that makes her feel good.

Asa vs. Mike: Different, but not really

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The race for U.S. Senate features two candidates of completely different ideologies, approaches, backgrounds and temperaments. If you believe that Sen. Mark Pryor is right, then you almost have to believe that Rep. Tom Cotton is wrong.

The race for governor between former Rep. Asa Hutchinson and former Rep. Mike Ross? Not so much. State government, as opposed to D.C. politics, tends to force both parties to the center anyway, and that’s definitely the case this year.

Friday night’s testy televised governor’s debate sponsored by KARK illustrated the candidates’ differences that are not so different. As they have throughout this campaign, they disagreed, sometimes personally, on policies but not so much on goals. You know those online roadmap programs where you type in your starting point and your destination and are presented three routes that eventually converge? One of those routes is Hutchinson, and one is Ross.

For example, Hutchinson says he wants to be the “jobs governor,” while Ross says he wants to be the “education governor.” But both men know the state needs a good education system to create jobs, and both men know it needs jobs to pay for a good education system.

Both candidates want to cut income taxes by reforming the state’s tax code, which hasn’t been modernized since 1971 and therefore places Arkansans earning only $34,000 a year in the highest tax bracket of 7 percent. Hutchinson would reduce rates for Arkansans earning from $20,400 to $75,000. Ross would raise the top tax bracket’s minimum income to $75,100, meaning it would capture fewer Arkansans. Hutchinson would implement his plan next year; Ross would phase in his over time but says his would be bigger.

Different? Sure. But either candidate could have proposed either plan.

On some other issues, the candidates largely agree. They’re both not crazy about the state spending $100 million to build another prison and would like to consider alternative sentences. They both support keeping the Governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund, which gives the governor a pile of money to use to attract employers.

Even some areas of disagreement are largely differences of degree. For example, Ross’ signature education proposal would increase state pre-kindergarten funding for four-year-olds so that it eventually covers all families with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. It currently covers families up to 200 percent but is not fully funded. Pre-K is not really Hutchinson’s thing, but he says he’d fully fund it up to 200 percent.

Those are real differences with consequences, but they don’t represent radically different visions of what the state should look like.

As for the state’s Medicaid private option, Ross is clearly a defender. Hutchinson has not said he’s against it, which means he’s mostly for it. If Ross is elected governor, he’ll probably fight Republicans in the Legislature to keep it largely as it is. If Hutchinson wins, he’ll probably work with Republican legislators to change it without trashing it. Neither would jeopardize his tax cut plan by refusing billions of federal dollars currently insuring 200,000 Arkansans.

Even their backgrounds are not that different. They both tout their modest, middle class upbringings. They both are establishment-type candidates who have spent a lot of time in Washington, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Hutchinson was elected to Congress in 1996 and then served as director of the Drug Enforcement Administration and then as under secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Ross spent 12 years in Congress. Ross is a conservative Democrat and Hutchinson is a conservative Republican, but neither are bomb-throwers.

Of course these two men are different, and they would be different governors. But if you are a Hutchinson supporter, you could probably live with Mike Ross, and vice versa. Arkansas state government under either man would look about the same, while 100 Tom Cottons in the U.S. Senate would produce very different results than 100 Mark Pryors.

School elections: big issues, few voters

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

You wouldn’t know it from all the political ads still running, but some of the most important elections in Arkansas this year have already occurred.

Those would be Tuesday’s school elections.

In Jacksonville and north Pulaski County, 95 percent of voters elected to separate from the Pulaski County Special School District, a large doughnut-shaped district that surrounds Little Rock and North Little Rock. Voters wanted more of a say in a district whose administrative offices are on the other side of the county.

That’s a big deal. Ninety-five percent of voters don’t agree on anything unless they live in North Korea. It also represents a temporary break from a historical trend of school consolidation. According to a history written by Kellar Noggle, former executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, Arkansas had 4,734 school districts in 1927. Before Tuesday, that number had shrunk to 238. Unless another consolidates before Jacksonville’s separation is complete, there will be 239.

While the Jacksonville election attracted almost 4,000 voters, turnout elsewhere was low, as always. Two competitive school board races that unseated incumbents in the 25,000-student Little Rock School District attracted a little over 1,300 voters. Before the election, Randy Zook, head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, asked 400 Rotarians in Little Rock if they knew the date of the upcoming vote. Half a dozen raised their hands.

It’s a problem when a school board election in Little Rock is decided by a vote of 379-221. Those low numbers make it easier to manipulate an election and then manipulate policymaking. A candidate can be elected with the support of a few people with an agenda and then try to implement that agenda once in office.

The rest of this column will cover what, if anything, should be done about this low turnout. I should disclose that I publish a magazine, Report Card, in partnership with the Arkansas School Boards Association (ASBA). It is supported by advertising, and ASBA does not pay me, but I have done other work in which it has. I think I can play this straight.

It’s understandable that school board elections attract little attention. School board offices are unpaid, part-time, and nonpartisan. Most candidates don’t have the funds to advertise and attract voters’ attention – especially in a year like this when the U.S. Senate and governor’s races grab so many headlines.

If the problem is simply a lack of attention, could that be fixed? Last year, the advocacy group Arkansas Learns spent $100,000 on advertisements and automated phone calls encouraging people to vote – not for a particular candidate, just to vote – in various contested races. It made so little difference that it did not repeat the effort this year.

Arkansas Learns’ president and CEO, Gary Newton, instead favors holding school board elections in November with the other races. Doing so would result in more voters expressing their will and would reduce the potential for manipulation that can result from low turnout. The idea has been proposed in previous legislative sessions and been voted down, but it might pass in 2015. Arkansas has moved the date of school elections before. A few decades ago, they were in March.

ASBA is opposed. It says school elections should be a separate vote and that November elections would politicize a traditionally nonpartisan office. Don’t make the local banker and the local farmer running for school board compete for attention with Mark Pryor and Tom Cotton, it says. A lot of voters will just end up guessing.

I come down on ASBA’s side on this. My November ballot is already too crowded with races for U.S. Senate, U.S. Congress, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor, land commissioner, county judge, sheriff, and who knows what else. I don’t even know who some of these people are or what the offices really do.

On the other hand, I publish a quarterly magazine for school board members, and this election nearly snuck up on me as a journalist. Who thinks about voting in September?

There is one other alternative: Get rid of school boards. However, so much power in education has already moved to the state and federal levels. Unless mayors are put in charge, without school boards, there would be no local control at all.

You might argue it doesn’t really matter where school policy is made. It certainly mattered to the folks in Jacksonville.

GOP Senate takeover is best for all

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

This is not an endorsement of Rep. Tom Cotton, but it’s best for everyone – in some ways, even President Obama – if Republicans take over the Senate. They are almost certain to maintain control of the House, so a GOP-controlled Senate is the only way our government might be able to function during the next two years.

We’ve seen what happens when one party controls the House and the other controls the Senate in the current political climate – a complete train wreck. Nobody has to take responsibility because everybody can just blame the other side. As a result, Americans have witnessed a series of avoidable fiscal crises and a government shutdown. It’s also why we’ve seen hundreds of show votes that have little purpose but to score political points, such as the Republican House’s dozens of votes to repeal or cripple Obamacare. Those bills died in the Senate, which the House members knew would happen all along.

Just as a split Congress is bad for the country, so too is one-party control. Under the Constitution, the White House and Congress are supposed to check and balance each other. But the way the system has evolved, when the president and the congressional majority are of the same party, they see themselves as members of the same team.

In contrast, the government functioned reasonably well at times from 1994-2000, when Democrats controlled the White House under President Clinton and Republicans controlled Congress. The melting pot of ideas and priorities brought both branches of government to the center. Together they reformed welfare and passed polices that enabled the government to balance the budget, sort of. On the other hand, Monica Lewinsky happened.

If Republicans win control of the Senate (and keep the House), they will have a responsibility to govern, not just oppose Obama. They will need to show the country they can accomplish something constructive so they can win again in 2016.

So there will not be dozens of votes to repeal Obamacare because if Republicans actually did that, they’d have the responsibility to replace it with something else, and they don’t know what that would be.

Instead, GOP members will pass one bill to repeal Obamacare in the House and try to pass one in the Senate to satisfy their base voters. If it somehow survived a Democratic filibuster attempt in the Senate, Obama of course would use his veto. If that were to happen, everyone on both sides would rant and rave, and then hopefully Congress would get down to business and start amending the law – for example, by passing tort reform to limit the excesses of medical malpractice lawsuits. Obama might even sign such a bill because a Republican takeover of the Senate would force (and on some issues allow) him and some congressional Democrats to move to the center.

Mike Ross, who spent 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, has made a similar argument in his race for governor. Republicans already are assured of a minimum of 20 of the 35 seats in the Arkansas Senate. They’ll almost certainly control the House as well.

Ross has said his election will keep one party from controlling everything. That’s true, although the Arkansas governor’s veto is far less powerful than the president’s. While a presidential veto requires a two-thirds vote to override, the state Legislature merely needs a simple majority, which is the same percentage that passed the bill in the first place. Still, the governor is the state’s chief executive – the one able to get everybody’s attention, and the one who remains in Little Rock administering state government after legislators have gone home.

So Ross is right. Voting for him will result in divided government in Little Rock, and voting for his opponent, Asa Hutchinson, will result in one-party control.

That’s not an endorsement of Ross any more than this column is endorsing Cotton. There are many other reasons to choose one candidate over the other. Besides, Little Rock is not Washington – not now, and hopefully not ever.

Remembering history on the eve of war

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” the philosopher and poet George Santayana wrote. They also forget the good stuff, too.

Prior to Dec. 7, 1941, Americans were divided on how to respond to the escalating global conflict. That division ended with the attack on Pearl Harbor. Congress declared war on Japan with one dissenting vote. Germany and Italy declared war on America. America declared war on Germany and Italy.

In the months that followed, Americans volunteered for service or registered for the draft. During the war years, civilians across the country participated in scrap metal drives, bought war bonds, and accepted the rationing of certain foods and household items. They could hardly buy a tire because the rubber was needed by the boys overseas. Taxes, which already were high, rose even higher to a top rate of 94 percent. No one, and I mean no one, could go about their lives pretending a war wasn’t happening.

On Wednesday night, President Obama announced that the United States is expanding its efforts against its newest enemy. As with Japan in World War II, the Islamic State, or ISIS, has been committing atrocities for a while now in Syria and Iraq, but American opinion was not galvanized until Americans were killed, visibly. In 1941, it was the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Now, it’s the beheading of two journalists.

Obama announced that the United States will, among other actions, lead a broad coalition against ISIS, conduct airstrikes in Iraq and Syria, and will deploy 475 additional military advisors in Iraq. He asked Congress for “additional authority and resources” to train and arm Syrian rebels. “America, our endless blessings bestow an enduring burden” of leadership, he said.

This effort will be a fraction of the federal budget, but it will not be free. There is no question the resources will be provided. The question is, from whom? Like much of what the United States has done since 1980 – including a bunch of military actions, particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan – the money likely will be borrowed. Because our blessings are not actually endless, we’ve made a habit of asking for our children and grandchildren to pay for our current needs.

Whether it involves foreign policies like the wars in Iraq, or domestic crises such as relief after Hurricane Sandy, America’s response has been consistent for decades: There’s a need, often a legitimate one, and so we meet it. Unfortunately, we tend not to count the costs, and if we do, we tend to pass them on.

I am not opposed to what the president is proposing – and unlike many, I expect he’ll do a decent enough job of carrying out his plans. But the costs of this exercise should be budgeted, and they should be offset by spending cuts elsewhere or by revenue increases. No more wars that we ask our kids to pay for.

There’s a tendency to glorify World War II. That’s a mistake, because we need to learn from actual history, not an idealized one. They had a draft back then because they couldn’t get enough volunteers. They raised taxes because they couldn’t just pass the offering plate and collect enough to pay for the war. At the end of the war, the national debt had increased to 109 percent of the gross domestic product – higher than it is now.

But Americans back then at least tried to pay their own way. They did this at a time when the entire world was in flames, when much of the available workforce was overseas, when many were grieving lost loved ones, and when the Great Depression was still a fresh memory. Everyone sacrificed – not just those who wore a uniform.

Now, like so many times in recent years, the United States is about to kill some bad people in a far-off land. Let’s hope it makes the world a safer, freer place.

If it does, it would be our world that benefits – the one we’re living in now. That means we should be the ones to pay for it, not our children and grandchildren. They already will be looking back through history at us, and, hopefully, learning from our mistakes so they don’t repeat them.

A drugstore quits cigarettes

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

CVS Pharmacy, a national drugstore chain, stopped selling cigarettes last week. This was big news because it was so unusual. And if anyone is wondering why the United States is spending far too much money paying for health care that isn’t making Americans healthier – those first two sentences should help explain it.

The chain is rebranding itself as “CVS Health” as it empties its shelves of the tobacco products that contribute to one in five American deaths, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The company did not have a sudden epiphany that tobacco is bad for us. It’s trying to find a market niche as a health care provider. Like other pharmaceutical retailers, it also is offering basic medical services such as flu vaccines and blood pressure tests.

This is a welcome change because drugstores – which supposedly sell us products to make us well – are among the unhealthiest retailers in the country. The national chain in my area – I won’t use the name, but it’s new slogan contains the word “healthy” – sells cigarettes, candy and colas behind or near the cashier, who is located only feet from the doorway. Rows upon rows of candy, in fact, are sold in that store, along with chips and other salty snacks. It does sell cereal, and there’s a small refrigerated section that contains juice and milk, along with frozen pizza and ice cream. The gas station that changes my oil sells bananas, oranges and apples. Not so this drugstore, where virtually every grocery item is a processed food. The drugstore does sell bottled water, which, though a waste of money, is at least good for you.

You can’t really blame the drugstores for this. I guess they have every right to sell us what we have every right to buy, and Americans in general and Arkansans in particular buy a lot of tobacco, candy and processed foods. According to the CDC, an estimated 41.1 million Americans, or 18.1 percent of us, smoke cigarettes. In Arkansas, it’s 27 percent, ranking the state 49th, and not in a good way. More than one-third of Americans are obese.

The United States spends about 18 percent of its gross domestic product on health care – far more than other industrial countries. Some say it has the “best health care system in the world,” and if you judge it by one metric – the ability to treat certain serous diseases, that’s true. But it’s burdening us and future generations with unsustainable debt, and was doing so long before Obamacare was created.

The health care system itself is partly to blame. Among its biggest problems is that it rewards all the wrong behaviors. It pays medical providers far more money for treating diseases than it does for curing them and pays them almost nothing for prevention. A pharmacy selling us cigarettes and then selling us drugs (and charging the government for them) to treat the effects of those cigarettes? That’s the American way.

But just as it’s very hard for schools to educate students without parental support, it’s difficult for the health care system to treat patients when we don’t treat ourselves. Americans see “health care” largely as the act of taking a pill, right now, to make us feel better, right now. It’s no wonder drugstores sell cigarettes and candy. They’re drugs. One produces a nicotine high, and one produces a sugar rush.

So while we’re talking about state and national policies, we also have to talk about personal responsibility. In fact, the conversation must start there, even if it’s a little uncomfortable, just as writing this column has been. (Most are.) As Arkansas Surgeon General Dr. Joe Thompson said recently as we discussed various forms of health care reform, “If we don’t get control over our obesity and of our hypertension and our tobacco use, it doesn’t matter how much money we’re spending. We’re going to sink the boat.”

Will a drugstore clearing its shelves of America’s most harmful drug keep that boat afloat? No, but it certainly can’t hurt. It made its choice based on free market principles. Let’s hope the market rewards it, and that others freely follow its lead.

The minimum wage: Make it about work, not fairness

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Arkansans in November will vote on whether or not to raise the minimum wage incrementally from its current $6.25 an hour to $8.50 by the beginning of 2017. There is no organized opposition, the State Commerce of Commerce doesn’t have an opinion, and polls have shown it is likely to pass.

For perspective on this Arkansas-based issue, let’s check with a self-described “zillionaire” from Seattle.

Nick Hanauer earned his billions starting and helping start more than 30 companies and was an early investor in Amazon.com. He’s written a widely shared piece for Politico magazine, “The Pitchforks Are Coming … For Us Plutocrats.” A plutocrat is a powerful, wealthy person.

Hanauer says the shrinking middle class is bad for everyone. The top 1 percent earn about 20 percent of the nation’s income while the bottom half earn just 12 percent – a gap that is widening. He points out that capitalist societies don’t survive long without a healthy middle class – the economy’s real job creator. As the middle class shrinks, consumers have less money to spend at businesses owned by rich people. Eventually, he writes, the common people get restless, and then you have problems – historically, either a revolution or a police state. As Hanauer jokingly told radio host Tavis Smiley, the super-rich have the most to gain or lose “because we’re the ones that go to the guillotine.”

Hanauer’s only specific prescription in his piece is raising the minimum wage. In Seattle, the economy has boomed even as the minimum wage has increased to $15 an hour – which would be too high for Arkansas.

Arkansas is one of only four states whose minimum wage falls below the federal level of $7.25 per hour. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2012 there were 50,000 employees here above the age of 16 earning at or below the federal minimum wage. That’s about 6.9 percent of all workers here who, if they work 40 hours a week and never take a vacation, earn $13,000 a year before taxes.

You might say that’s not fair. If you do, Hanauer would say you’re using the wrong language. He says supporters of raising the minimum wage should stop talking about fairness and instead focus on the economic benefits that occur when work pays. People who earn a livable wage have money to spend at local businesses and don’t require government assistance, as do many fast-food and other low-wage workers now. “The fundamental law of capitalism is, when workers have more money, businesses have more customers,” Hanauer told Smiley.

The same argument is being made – and should be made more aggressively – by supporters of the private option. That’s the state program that uses Medicaid dollars to buy private insurance for low-income Arkansans. It had enrolled 163,480 people as of July 31.

One of the arguments opponents make is that it’s an expansion of government, and they are right, in one way. But remember that the private option is a benefit for “low-income Arkansans,” not “no-income Arkansans.” Recipients are engaged in some form of employment that had made them ineligible for free government health care through Medicaid. They’ve made choices to try to be self-sufficient. If the private option is repealed, the practical result will be that they will get free health care anyway because they won’t be able to afford it on their own. Moreover, the message sent to recipients will be that they are better off not working and instead should depend on the government like some of the people they know.

The wealth gap must be addressed. Without a strong middle class, both democracy and capitalism are corrupted. There’s a reason why the Wall Streeters who nearly wrecked the economy were bailed out: They make the rules. And without a strong middle class, the economy enters a death spiral where not enough people spend not enough money to support not enough businesses, which then hire not enough people.

But how we talk about the wealth gap is as important as what is done about it. Please, no more political movements encouraging us to see ourselves as victims. Hanauer is right: As society debates issues like raising the minimum wage, the focus should be on self-sufficiency, not fairness. There are many things about which Americans can’t agree, including what’s “fair,” but most of us believe this: It’s better for people to earn a real paycheck than to accept a government handout.

Here’s Hanauer’s Politico article.

Here’s Hanauer’s interview with Tavis Smiley.

Kansas independent could shake up Senate

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Note to subscribers: This is an updated version of this column that had been released earlier today.

The race between Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. Tom Cotton is one of the two or three most important in the country because both political parties believe it will help determine control of the Senate. But another race could be even more important – the one in Kansas, where businessman Greg Orman, a member of no party, has a real chance to win.

Orman, an independent, had polled third in a four-man race in a recent Public Policy Polling survey, but with 23 percent support, he was not far behind Sen. Pat Roberts, the unpopular incumbent Republican. Roberts was leading with only 32 percent and had an approval rating lower than President Obama’s. That same poll revealed that, were this only a two-man race between Orman and Sen. Roberts, Orman would be leading, 43-33.

The four-man race is now a three-man race. The Democrat, Chad Taylor, who was second with 25 percent, dropped out Wednesday. The other candidate is Libertarian Randy Batson.

Taylor had little chance of winning in a state that hasn’t elected a Democrat to the Senate since the Great Depression. In fact, the best he could have done was split the anti-incumbent vote and elect the Republican, which would have been a huge irony. Typically the argument against voting for independents is that it’s a “wasted vote” – you know, you must vote for the major party candidate you dislike the least, or you’ll otherwise help the other major party’s candidate win. In this case, the Democrat would have been the spoiler. His party’s leadership obviously encouraged him to drop out.

Orman says he simply does not fit into either party. He was a College Republican in 1988, became a fan of independent Ross Perot in 1992, leaned Republican for a while, and then flirted with running against Roberts as a Democrat in the 2008 race. He says he voted for President Obama in 2008 and then Mitt Romney in 2012. In 2010, he founded the Common Sense Coalition, whose purpose has been to elect centrist candidates. “Historically, I’ve tried the Republican Party, I’ve tried the Democratic Party, and I’ve just finally decided that if we’re going to change things in Washington, we’ve got to attack the two-party system and stop supporting it,” he told MSNBC.

He describes himself as “fiscally conservative and socially tolerant,” which might not play well in Arkansas right now but apparently has some appeal in Kansas. The nationwide tension between the GOP’s various factions is boiling over in that state. On Wednesday, more than 70 moderate former Republican legislators announced they were supporting Orman, not their own party’s candidate.

Why am I writing about a Kansas race? Because of what might happen if Orman wins. There are already two independents in the Senate who align themselves with the Democrats. Orman says he will caucus with whichever party will adopt more of a solutions-oriented approach. If control of the Senate in this close election comes down to which party he chooses to align with, he then becomes a powerful swing vote. He could make demands. And that could get interesting.

Then what? There would be three independents out of 100 in the Senate. Maybe Orman’s model could create a template that other independent candidates could follow. Maybe a rich businessman in a state like Arkansas might decide to run as an independent, too. Maybe if there were six or seven independents in the Senate, they could form a “coalition of the uncorrupted” who side with either party or neither depending on the issue, forcing both to behave.

Of course I’m heading toward wishful thinking territory here. Eventually, that coalition would be corrupted, too. Also, two-party domination is almost inevitable the way our system is designed. The most likely good scenario is a shakeup that makes the system work a little better for a while. That’s what happened after 1992, when Perot won 19 percent of the vote basing his campaign on balancing the budget, and then congressional Republicans and President Clinton sort of balanced the budget.

Maybe it starts this time in Kansas.

Here is one of Orman’s ads.

A tale of two Pryor ads

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

One ad explains why Sen. Mark Pryor made the toughest vote of his career. In another ad, the Pryor campaign misrepresents his opponent’s position. The first ad features the candidate speaking directly into the camera and is effective. The second uses faceless narrators and is terrible. That’s not a coincidence.

Let’s start with the first ad. Pryor and his father, former Sen. David Pryor, describe Mark Pryor’s struggles with his insurance company when he was battling cancer. “No one should be fighting an insurance company while you’re fighting for your life,” Mark Pryor says in the ad. “That’s why I helped pass a law that prevents insurance companies from canceling your policy if you get sick or deny coverage for pre-existing conditions.”

That law was the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. The ad has gotten some national attention because a Democratic senator in a tough re-election bid in a Republican-leaning state embraced his vote for Obamacare, even if he doesn’t actually use the name. Good for him for explaining his reasoning. That’s what campaigns are for – to give voters information so they can make decisions.

Then there’s the “Ebola” ad, which also has received national attention, but for a different reason.

You don’t hear much from Pryor in that ad, except for the legally required “I’m Mark Pryor, and I approved this message.” In that ad, not only one but two faceless narrators say Pryor’s opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, “voted against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola. … Instead Cotton voted for tax cuts for billionaires funding his campaign rather than protecting our families.”

The vote to which the Pryor campaign is referring was to pass the Pandemic and All-Hazards Preparedness Reauthorization Act of 2013, which funded preparations for responding to a public health emergency such as a rapidly spreading disease. The bill passed 395-29 in the House on Jan. 22, 2013. As the ad correctly states, Cotton was the only Arkansas congressman to vote no.

How could Cotton vote against “protecting our families”? His spokesman, David Ray, said Cotton objected to a part of the bill enabling the federal Department of Health and Human Services to enact a mandatory deployment of public health workers, including those employed by states, during a major health crisis. Cotton believed the mandatory call-up was contrary to existing law and Supreme Court precedent. The bill did not pass as written. In March, Cotton voted for a similar bill that made the call-up of health workers a voluntary one. Pryor voted for the same bill, and that’s what funded the program.

So Cotton didn’t really vote “against preparing America for pandemics like Ebola.” He voted against an early version of a particular bill. Campaigns use votes like this to mislead voters about their opponents all the time, but this one is so over-the-top that Cotton’s campaign is now featuring it on its own website, while it’s not on Pryor’s.

On Wednesday, Pryor held a press conference defending the ad. He brought up Cotton’s votes against the farm bill and disaster aid and said this is part of a pattern where Cotton votes against appropriate government spending.

He made a better case talking in person than those two faceless narrators did reading a script on television.

In fact, the most effective campaign ads right now feature the candidates talking directly to voters. Those would be the Pryor cancer ad already mentioned, and Asa Hutchinson’s ad where he talks about his granddaughter inspiring him to support a law requiring high schools to offer a computer coding class.

Those ads work because they allow voters to see the candidates offering a positive vision, but what if candidates also spoke for themselves when they wanted to criticize their opponents? I’m betting their messages would be much more responsible and measured. In one earlier ad, Pryor himself had this to say, calmly, about Cotton regarding Medicare: “My opponent voted to withhold benefits until age 70, and I’m trying to stop that.” When candidates want to distinguish themselves from their opponents in a 30-second ad, that’s how they should do it.

Campaigns have decided it’s bad for their candidates to be seen criticizing their opponents in an ad. Actually, I would respect them more if they did it that way. My outlook is very Southern. If you can’t say something nice about someone, don’t say anything at all. But if you think something not nice needs to be said, say it yourself.

Here are the two ads.

The lieutenant governor: Change it, or get rid of it

By Steve Brawner
© 2014 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

For more than three years from 2003-06, your tax dollars were not spent very efficiently, and I was a beneficiary.

I was the communications director in the lieutenant governor’s office. My boss, Lt. Governor Win Rockefeller, was a very good man, but the lieutenant governorship, at least the way it is designed in Arkansas, is not a useful office.

Nothing occurs there that could not be done somewhere else. Under the Arkansas Constitution, the lieutenant governor presides over the Senate when it is in session (a ceremonial job) and serves as governor when the governor is out of state (an unnecessary responsibility in the 21st century). The other major duty, the one that really matters, is to serve as governor if the governor does not finish his or her term. Two of the past four lieutenant governors have been called upon to do that.

The office, when filled, consumes about $400,000 a year in order to employ state government’s backup quarterback and his or her staff. Currently, no one even occupies the office. With the resignation of former Lt. Governor Mark Darr, the doors have been locked and the lights off for months. As Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, explained in an interview, “We’ve got an office that in all intents and purposes doesn’t exist right now, and there’s no clamor about some services that are not being met.”

Ingram and Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, are proposing abolishing the office and making the attorney general next in line to be governor. This would require a constitutional amendment approved by the voters. Were it to pass, Arkansas would join five other states that don’t have a lieutenant governor.

The proposal has been far from universally embraced. There’s a natural resistance to changing the Constitution, which is a good thing. Plus, some legislators might want to be lieutenant governor someday and are reluctant to vote to get rid of the office. It’s hard to cut the backup quarterback when you hope to be one someday.

There’s some concern about making the attorney general next in line, which no state currently does, because doing so limits that opportunity to lawyers only.

But it not the attorney general, then who? The next highest statewide position after attorney general is the secretary of state, a job that deals primarily with running elections and maintaining the Capitol – not really governor-type duties. Still, that position ascends to governor in three states that have no lieutenant governor – Arizona, Oregon and Wyoming. In New Jersey, the lieutenant governor and the secretary of state are the same officeholder. Legislators deal with many of the same issues as the governor, so the speaker of the House or the Senate president pro tempore would make sense. The objection is that neither are elected by voters statewide, but that hasn’t stopped Maine, New Hampshire, Tennessee and West Virginia from making the leader of the Senate their next in line. In fact, Tennessee and West Virginia give their Senate leaders the title of “lieutenant governor.”

We could just make the lieutenant governor a real job. At one time, Arkansas’ lieutenant governor exercised real power in the Senate by appointing committees and committee chairs. There’s no way legislators are giving up those powers now, but perhaps the lieutenant governor could be made the head of a state agency or a member of some important commissions.

Or, the governor and the lieutenant governor could be yoked together on one ticket, like the president and the vice president are, instead of running separately as occurs now. That way the governor and lieutenant governor could be a team, maybe even share staff. That would be the opposite of what the state had before Darr resigned: a Democratic governor and a Republican lieutenant governor who couldn’t work together and didn’t even like each other.

Changing anything in government is hard, particularly when there’s no deadline forcing it to happen. We don’t have a crisis. We have an office that doesn’t do much when it has an occupant and currently doesn’t even have that. Ideally, Arkansas could either make it useful or just get rid of it.

Or we could just leave things as they are. It’s only $400,000 a year. Of your money.

Here’s a KARK-TV report about this subject.