K through job education

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

The elected official in the state Capitol making the biggest impact next year will be Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson. The second most impactful elected official may be a 74-year-old grandmother with an agenda.

That would be Sen. Jane English, R-North Little Rock.

English spent her career in economic development and will use her chairmanship of the Senate Education Committee to try to change how Arkansas educates and develops its workers. She says the education system is composed of too many disconnected silos – K-12 public schools over here, colleges and universities over there, career education in a third spot, etc. – that don’t always prepare students for the workforce.

“We typically think of education as K through 12, but for me, education is K through job,” she said after selecting the chairmanship.

She wants to reform a system that did not serve the state well enough during her career in economic development. There’s also this motivation: “I have a 17-year-old granddaughter, straight A student, takes AP (Advanced Placement) courses,” she said in an interview Dec. 12. “She’s going to play softball with the Lady Razorbacks. Well, she’s fine with this whole pattern. But then I have a grandson, that may not work for him. I had a grandson, and it didn’t work for him at all. He was not an AP person. He was never going to college, but he has a good career now.”

English is not the first or the only one making this point. Lt. Gov. Win Rockefeller would say the education system is like a string of water pipes laid end to end but not fastened together. Hutchinson talked a lot about workforce development in the gubernatorial campaign. In September, the State Chamber of Commerce hosted a summit highlighting the need for Arkansas’ education system to be more responsive to the job market.

Changes already are occurring, particularly at the local level, to make the system more connected and responsive. Many high schools offer students opportunities to earn significant college credit. Bearden High School students are bussed to Southern Arkansas University Tech each day for academic and career classes. At Maumelle High, students basically select a major and take classes that are tailored to their interests and that prepare them for a job. Colleges and universities are becoming more responsive to workforce needs. The University of Arkansas – Fort Smith, for example, created a robotics program after surveying local industries and discovering a surprising number needed training in that area.

Despite these individual successes, Arkansas needs a more comprehensive overall strategy, a reallocation of resources, and a different mindset. And that’s where English has become a pivotal figure. In February, she switched her vote on the private option – until then, one vote short of passage in the Senate – from no to yes in exchange for a commitment from Gov. Mike Beebe to focus on the issue. As a result, for much of the year she chaired weekly meetings each Monday with various state education and economic development officials. Shane Broadway, director of the Department of Higher Education, says one of his staff members jokingly referred to the meetings as “English class.”

English said the meetings have produced no concrete proposals, though she has some ideas. She said many of the needed changes don’t require legislation.

Whatever the Legislature passes will be the result of collaboration and compromise. English’s main role will be to continue doing what she has already done: serve as a catalyst. Broadway said state agency heads were already discussing the need for changes, but English’s switched vote was the spark. As she explained it, “Sometimes you have to have something wild that starts things in motion and gets people to start talking. Otherwise, you’re just churning around forever and ever.”

The private option, prisons, and other issues will get the most attention this session. But, quietly, significant workforce development changes could occur. The facts are clear, the need is obvious, and the agreement is broad. Too many students aren’t being prepared for actual jobs, while too many jobs are unfilled because workers with the right skills aren’t available.

Now the Senate Education Committee is headed by someone whose top priority is doing something about it. We’ll see if the other legislators speak English’s language.

Should legislators get a raise?

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

Let’s start by emphasizing that I was the one who brought up the subject with Rep.-elect Ron McNair, R-Alpena. He did not approach me to complain in print.

The subject is pay for state legislators.

McNair owns an auto shop in Alpena in north Arkansas. He is his only employee. He’s been an unpaid school board member almost 30 years. He narrowly won the Republican primary in May and didn’t face a Democratic opponent, so he’s been driving back and forth to Little Rock at his own expense to get his feet wet before his term actually starts. He will close his shop’s doors at least three months next year while the Legislature is in session. He says he has loyal customers, and he’s worked out arrangements, but that can’t be good for business. He did not know what his legislative salary would be before the election, and he’s still not sure.

That’s because the pay varies member to member. The base pay for House members is $15,869, but legislators also can take advantage of up to $14,000 per year for office expenses they are required to itemize. Some pay themselves rent or pay family members a salary. They also are reimbursed for per diem expenses (lodging and meals) each day they are in Little Rock – $150 per day if they live 50 miles outside the Capitol and $61 if they are closer. They also are reimbursed 56 cents per mile driven. They can be vested in the state’s retirement system if they serve long enough, and they can purchase health insurance like other state employees.

Sounds like a good deal, right? Well, being a legislator is a pretty demanding part-time job involving regular sessions, fiscal sessions, special sessions, interim committee meetings, constituent phone calls and interrupted grocery trips. Many legislators actually do have legitimate office expenses, such as phones. Mileage reimbursements feel like an extra paycheck until you have to replace your worn out tires. Legislators also must stay somewhere when they are in Little Rock. Some pay about $400 a month for rent at the Capitol Hill apartments beside the Capitol.

Sen. Jon Woods, R-Springdale, isn’t sure how much money he makes, either, and he’s been in the Legislature since 2007. During a phone interview, he figured up that his actual take-home pay after expenses is roughly $1,900 a month, but that was kind of a back-of-the-envelope estimate. Being a legislator is his only job; he decided couldn’t serve an employer effectively while also driving back and forth to Little Rock.

Legislators likely are about to get a raise thanks to Amendment 3, passed by voters in November, which included a number of ethics-related provisions. In the past, legislators were responsible for voting for their own pay raises, so they didn’t do it very often. That duty now falls to a citizens commission appointed by legislators, the governor, and the chief justice of the Supreme Court. It will be easier for the commission to raise salaries than it was for the legislators to do so.

Woods, one of Amendment 3’s sponsors, says the current salary structure creates an unnecessary strain on legislators and encourages bad behavior. One behavior, having individual legislators’ meals bought by lobbyists, has been ended by another provision of Amendment 3. Now that legislators are buying their own meals – and they eat out a lot – they’ve effectively received a pay cut.

If legislators were getting rich, there’d be a lot more candidates for office. If they were going broke, they wouldn’t run for re-election. We have in Arkansas a citizen Legislature composed of people who have to pay the bills. It would be best if the salary commission raised base pay while reducing the perks that make it hard to tell who’s making how much. And yeah, legislators should make more money than they do now.

There is the argument that they should be paid nothing, that serving in the Legislature should be just that – a service.

That argument makes sense if all we want in the Legislature are the independently wealthy, the retired, and the dishonest. Which would mean no more laws would be passed by people who own small businesses and fix cars for a living.

Water, water everywhere, but not enough below

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

It makes up about 71 percent of the earth’s surface and about 60 percent of the adult human body. All our lives, it’s been available in abundance, particularly in Arkansas, and it still is, but we’ll have to change the way we obtain it. And it won’t be cheap to make that change.

I’m talking, of course, about water. Arkansas consumes about 11 billion gallons a day – enough, over a year’s time, to cover every inch of the state 4.2 inches deep.

Eighty percent of that amount is used for agricultural irrigation, according to a draft of the Arkansas Water Plan 2014 Update. Updates are completed every couple of decades by the Arkansas Natural Resources Commission.

The report ranks thermoelectric power second in water use, at 11 percent. Drinking water makes up only 3.5 percent. According to Ed Swaim, the commission’s water resources division manager, almost as much water is used for flooding fields for duck hunting (a yearly average of 259.2 million gallons a day) as is used in all manufacturing (291 million gallons a day, and dropping).

About 71 percent of Arkansas’ water comes from underground, and that’s a problem, because we’re using up groundwater far faster than the water cycle can replenish it. Currently, about 8.7 million acre-feet per year are being pumped, but the water can only be replenished at a rate of 1.9 million acre-feet a year, Swaim says.

That means water tables are falling, fast, and have been for a long time. Farmers are drilling their wells deeper and deeper to get the same water.

Unlike some states, Arkansas can solve this problem fairly easily. Conservation measures will help some. More importantly, the state is covered with rivers, lakes and streams. We have so much surface water that, according to the Water Plan, the state can meet its needs by simply diverting surface water for crop irrigation. The Water Plan says we have enough to do this without detracting from water-bound transportation or harming fish and wildlife – an assertion with which not everyone will agree. Arkansas can meet its needs without even touching the mighty Mississippi River, which would be a headache because that river borders other states.

The Water Plan estimates it would cost between $3.4 billion and $7.8 billion to do this, which would come from a variety of government funding sources and user fees. In other words, the farmers would pay for part of it, and then pass on the costs to consumers. Arkansas’ annual agricultural production is valued at $9.7 billion, according to the plan. Without water, it would be a lot less.

In his book “The Seven Lamps of Architecture,” the English critic John Ruskin wrote, “Therefore, when we build, let us think that we build for ever. Let it not be for present delight, nor for present use alone; let it be such work as our descendants will thank us for, and let us think, as we lay stone on stone, that a time is to come when those stones will be held sacred because our hands have touched them, and that men will say as they look upon the labor and wrought substance of them, ‘See! this our fathers did for us.’”

The quote is displayed on a placard on the second floor of the Arkansas State Capitol – a building still as sturdy as when it was completed a century ago.

Not to be too negative here, but we don’t talk much about building for forever these days. Today’s thinking is more about making the monthly payment on the 15-year and 30-year bank note. On a larger scale, problems aren’t solved so much as patched temporarily. Much of our political system, and indeed our economy, is based on buying time – until the next election or the next harvest or the next quarterly report.

In this case, Arkansas has a growing threat to its economy and way of life – current and especially future. For a while, farmers can keep just drilling deeper. But at some point, the wells will go dry.

So we’ve got a problem, and we’ve got a solution – an expensive one. But what choice is there? There’s plenty of water around us, and not enough beneath us.

Prisons are full. Now what?

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

When critical needs aren’t being met, solutions come as a result of two activities: making hard choices and thinking creatively. With prisons, Arkansas has reached the point where it needs to do both.

The state’s prison system is now so full that about 2,500 state convicts are being housed at county jails that were never built for that purpose. The state reimburses counties $28 a day per inmate, the same rate as in 2001, despite counties’ average cost rising to $49 a day. Adding insult to injury, the state doesn’t reimburse counties until the inmate is discharged from jail or moved to the penitentiary. As a result of all this, counties are owed $7.7 million.

County governments, needless to say, are not happy about this. Testifying before four legislative committees Tuesday, Jackson County Sheriff David Lucas, president of the Arkansas Sheriffs Association, said his jail is so full that he’s had to obtain a court order ensuring only violent offenders are locked up. Because of this, nonviolent offenders are no longer paying their fines, and why should they? They know there’s no room in the jail. County voters have approved a tax increase to enlarge the facility, but construction has not begun.

Aware that this can’t continue, the Department of Correction is requesting a new 1,000-bed prison costing in the neighborhood of $100 million. That’s about the same size as the income tax decrease Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson pledged to enact during the campaign.

Sounds like it’s time for some of those hard choices mentioned in the first paragraph, doesn’t it? Should Arkansas build the prison and forego the tax cut? Should it do both, and cut somewhere else?

Another option – both a hard choice and the result of creative thinking – is to stop sending so many people to prison. Maybe there are better options for offenders who aren’t really threats to society. If the state stopped sending some of these struggling but save-able people to several years of “criminal school” in prison, maybe they wouldn’t become hardened criminals.

Here’s another case of creative thinking. Officials with LaSalle Corrections, a private prison provider based in Louisiana, told legislators Tuesday that they have room right now for 1,000 inmates near the Arkansas border. The cost would be about $28 a day – about what the state is paying as it underfunds counties. They can take them as fast as we can get them there.

It was a compelling case. The state Board of Corrections voted the next day to check into something like that.

Here’s the thing about using the private sector to perform traditional government operations: The private sector really is more efficient in many areas, but it tends to focus on picking low-hanging fruit and leaving the harder cases to the government. LaSalle Corrections does have medical staff at its facilities, but the $28 doesn’t cover big medical costs such as expensive drugs – and some inmates’ needs can be very expensive.

There’s also a philosophical question about the incentives created when imprisoning people becomes a commodity. What happens when corporations backed by lobbyists make more money by imprisoning more people as cheaply as possible? You might get more prisoners than you ought to have, and their needs might not be met – and yes, prisoners have needs. The officials with LaSalle seemed admirably sincere in their desire to help their inmates create better lives, but the state a few years ago tried using a private prison provider – Wackenhut Corrections Corp. – and it did not go well.

Is it worth a second try? It may have to be. Private prisons may be one necessary creative solution. But, as is usually the case when critical needs aren’t being met, hard choices still will have to be made.

Term limits probably will work out

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

For term limits supporters unhappy about what happened in November, it probably will work out for the best in the long run. Some reforms occurred that likely wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and voters probably will get a chance at a do-over in 2016.

Amendment 3 was a 22-page resolution with many provisions that was shrunk to a single paragraph for the ballot. It prohibits state candidates from accepting campaign contributions from corporations and unions. It prohibits legislators and constitutional officers from accepting gifts from lobbyists, which has already significantly changed the culture at the Capitol. It also increases from one year to two the amount of time that legislators must wait to register as a lobbyist after they leave office – the goal being to reduce the incentive for them to pass laws that would get them hired and help their future employers.

It also created a citizens commission to set salaries for legislators, constitutional officers and judges. In the past, legislators have set their own salaries, a conflict of interest that ironically has kept salaries low because of the awkwardness of it all. Commission members have been appointed by the governor, the leaders of the House and Senate, and the Supreme Court’s chief justice. In other words, they’ve appointed their own salary deciders. The result is that pay hikes probably are coming.

Finally, the amendment extends term limits from the current six years in the House and eight years in the Senate to 16 years total.

Actually, they could serve longer than that. Pages 16 and 17 of the resolution state that partial terms don’t count and that members who reach their 16th year in the middle of their term can finish it out.

The language voters saw on the ballot said the measure was “establishing” term limits. Polled shortly before the election by Talk Business and Hendrix College, 62 percent of respondents said they opposed the measure, while only 23 percent supported it. However, unlike the ballot title, the poll question spelled out that the measure would “extend term limits … to 16 years.”

Term limits supporters fought Amendment 3 before the election and will soon open up a new front. Bob Porto, co-chair of Arkansas Term Limits, said in an interview that organizers will meet to determine next steps, including what the 2016 proposal will look like. A ballot initiative will be created, and signatures will be gathered. Two years from now, voters should have the chance to vote on a simple term limits measure.
Nick Tomboulides, executive director of U.S. Term Limits, which spent $400,000 in ads opposing the measure, said it’s too early to know how big of an investment his group will make in 2016, but it will support the effort.

Unless there’s a problem with the ballot title – or unless a judge decides there’s a problem – that effort will pass, and Arkansas probably will return to having some of the strictest term limits laws in the nation. In the end, it probably will work out.

Amendment 3’s sponsors say the amendment included the term limits provision as part of a compromise. It was needed to gain enough legislative support to get the ethics provisions on the ballot. Many legislators believe that six years in the House just isn’t long enough.

I’m not one who says all elected officials are crooks. At the State Capitol, most legislators seem to act mostly ethically most of the time, which is about like most of us.

But a bit of a fast one was pulled this time, and it shouldn’t have happened. Legislators should not have folded all of these provisions into one ballot initiative and should have been clearer about what “establishing” term limits meant. The attorney general should have disapproved the ballot title. The amendment shouldn’t have survived a court challenge. Voters should have been aware of its provisions – unless, of course, they actually were.

And I should have written about it before the election, not afterwards. Sorry about that.

Asa and Bret

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

If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

Two Arkansans from very different walks of life personify that old expression – Gov.-elect Asa Hutchinson and Bret Bielema, Razorbacks head football coach. In this post-Thanksgiving column, let’s celebrate their achievements before returning to day-to-day politics next week.

Hutchinson not only tried again, but he tried, tried, tried again. Three times he lost badly in statewide elections – the last a 56-41 shellacking at the hands of Gov. Mike Beebe in the 2006 governor’s race. (Remember “Asa!”?) He faced good opponents, but he also lost those races because he chose to put an “R” beside his name instead of a “D,” when many other aspirational candidates simply joined the majority party.

For some reason, the former congressman, Drug Enforcement Agency director, and under secretary of the Department of Homeland Security really, really wanted to be governor of Arkansas, so he placed his name on the ballot again. Now 63 and about to turn 64, this year probably was his last chance to be elected. Naturally reserved, he seemed confident, relaxed and cheerful throughout the campaign. The swirling winds of history had shifted in his favor, and he knew it.

The dog has finally caught the car, but unlike the dog, Hutchinson seems to know what to do with his prize. He is methodically preparing his budget and determining who will lead the various state agencies. He’s been measured in his public comments and seems genuinely interested in uniting the state under his leadership – even, as columnist John Brummett recently reported, having a long phone conversation with Bill Clinton, whom Hutchinson prosecuted during the impeachment trial.

You have to add a few more “try agains” to Bielema’s situation – 12 in fact. The coach left a winning situation in Wisconsin to rebuild an Arkansas program that hadn’t yet recovered from the Bobby Petrino scandal. Thirteen times Bielema faced an SEC foe, and 13 times he lost, coming heartbreakingly close to victory against some of the nation’s best teams this season. Oh, yes, people were complaining – about Bielema’s throwback style of smashmouth football, and about the fact that native son Gus Malzahn, the coach many Arkansans wanted, took his Auburn team to the national championship game at the same time Bielema was going winless in the SEC last season.

Few are complaining now. Bielema’s style – both coaching and personal – seem a perfect fit for this state. He may be an Illinois native, but he was raised on a hog farm – yes, a hog farm – and he’s unquestionably one of us. Prior to the loss against Missouri Friday, Arkansas had shut out LSU and Ole Miss by a combined score of 47-0. The Razorbacks had finished one spot out of the Associated Press Top 25 poll. Has a 6-6 team ever been this good or this respected?

Arkansas’ future looks very bright. The Hogs are bowl-eligible, which didn’t seem likely a few weeks ago. They’ll enter next season with talent, depth, experience and high expectations. With so many other programs adopting the pass-first spread offense, blue-chip high school offensive linemen and running backs have to be placing Arkansas near the top of their lists. And just as Hutchinson did this year, the Razorbacks will continue to have success in future Novembers, particularly when the weather turns colder and the game becomes less about airing it out and more about grinding it out.

Grinding it out – that’s Hutchinson and Bielema. They tried and tried again, and then they succeeded.

Happy Giving Thanks Day

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

I let certain things get to me more than they should, such as the misuse of the apostrophe to pluralize a word on hand-lettered signs. (Just add an “s” to most words, people.) Another is calling the holiday we celebrate this time of year “Turkey Day.”

I know it’s just a way of taking the stuffing out of a holiday that could use a little more fun. Cooking a big meal is hard work. Family gatherings can be stressful. And the way the word is constructed, “Thanksgiving,” is not really how we talk. We don’t go cardriving for foodbuying for mealpreparing for suppereating.

Still, “Turkey Day” sounds like we’re celebrating a big meal with a big bird, not our many real blessings. We eat turkey all the time. In fact, judging by our waistlines, we feast all the time. It feels like we’re celebrating excess, not plenteousness – like we’re celebrating only the gift, not The Giver.

Maybe we should call it “Giving Thanks Day.” Would that remind us what the day should be about?

I try not to write much about my personal life in this column. If you would like, you can email me, and I’ll respond, and we can get to know each other.

Briefly, for my immediate family that lives beneath our house’s protective roof and sturdy walls, it’s been a good year. My wife and daughters grow more beautiful inside and out every day. We are healthy and can pay our bills.

However, for some who are near and dear, it’s been a very challenging year. There have been times we all have had to remind ourselves to be thankful.

Our society should do a better job of that as well. America is a prosperous and free country. Its biggest internal problems – the ones that make us fight each other most bitterly – center around defining our freedoms and managing what most would consider to be abundance. And yet it seems that much of our public and private discourse is negative. I don’t remember us ever being so cranky.

We can look at this past year as one when we were subjected to many thousands of political ads, or we can be thankful that our prospective lawmakers were compelled to advertise to us. There are no campaign ads in North Korea. And whether or not we happen to approve of the choices voters made in November, the important thing is that they had the chance to choose.

Many years ago, my wife was a sad little girl in a dark place in life. On yet another lonely school bus ride, she prayed looking for answers and heard a voice say, “Thank Me.” She did, and kept doing it. It changed her life.

We all should follow the lead of that little girl. Let’s not allow this holiday to be hijacked by its own traditions. It’s not about turkey, or even getting everybody together. It’s one day a year when we should stop striving for whatever we’re striving for, be grateful for what we have, and then prepare to share our blessings during the Christmas season ahead.

When someone emails me about a column, I try to start each response with, “Thanks for reading and for writing,” even if the writing’s purpose is to tell me I’m an idiot. Most of us want to be heard and to connect. This column lets me do both.

So if you read this column, thank you. If you’ve ever written me for whatever reason, thank you. If you are an editor or publisher who finds a place for my column in your publication, thank you. I hope this holiday is a joyous time for all of you and all of yours. Happy Giving Thanks Day, and enjoy your turkey.

Runoffs: More or less democratic?

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

When I told Jill Dabbs that she should already have been declared the winner in her race to be re-elected mayor of Bryant, I was surprised that she disagreed.

Dabbs placed first in a three-person race with 47 percent of the vote. In Tuesday’s runoff, she faces retired fire chief Randy Cox, who won 41 percent.

To me, 47 percent is close enough, but under Arkansas law, leading candidates who fall short of 50-percent-plus-one avoid a runoff only if they win 40 percent and have a 20 percent lead over the second place finisher. So, in Bryant, and in communities across Arkansas, here they go again.

According to the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, 73 runoff elections are being contested across the state. Twenty-two of those are mayoral races, and those should generate some interest. The rest are a variety of local races that will inspire very low turnout.

Most states do not have runoffs. The few that do are mostly in the South, where they were created because Democrats were the only real party, and leaders did not want winners with marginal support to win multi-candidate party primaries. That’s according to Dr. Charles Bullock of the University of Georgia, who wrote a book about runoffs. In other words, it would be bad if a candidate supported by 25 percent but disliked by 75 percent won because all the other candidates split the vote. In Arkansas, runoffs were enacted in the 1930s to keep Ku Klux Klan members out of office, Bullock said.

One problem with runoffs is they attract much lower turnout than general elections. Dabbs won 47 percent of 6,156 votes cast Nov. 4, but she could lose in the runoff if her opponent wins a majority of a lot fewer votes.

Which result is more democratic and reflective of the will of the people? You could argue either way. If I were designing the system, a candidate would win with 40 percent in the general election and face a runoff otherwise.

Before continuing, I should tell you that Dabbs and I volunteered together for a campaign to build a community center in Bryant, and I briefly volunteered with her first mayoral campaign in 2010. I no longer live in Bryant, and this column doesn’t appear in any Saline County news source.

I asked Dabbs what she thought about my position that Arkansas’ current runoffs law might be less democratic than some alternative. I figured she’d agree with me after campaigning all day in cold weather looking for people interested in voting again – or voting for the first time. Instead, she was pretty much pro-runoff.

“I think there’s a silver lining around this runoff,” she said. “I really do. … Any time you can engage the community to move the community forward and for the community to do better, good is going to come from that.”

Dabbs said without runoffs, bad incumbents would remain in office in multi-candidate races because the good challengers would split the vote.

What about the lower turnout? She said the answer is for more people to actually vote. Changing the law to suit the culture would just be giving into apathy.

“The fact that we have low voter turnout is not reason to change the law,” she said. “What we need to do is we need to figure out how to get better voter turnout. We need to change the culture of our country to go back to being committed to voting and recognizing that it’s a freedom that we all need to be exercising.”

Can’t argue with the last part about increasing turnout, though I’m not sure how to do that. Voters had more than two weeks to show up for the general election and a week to vote in the runoff. Maybe we could do like Australia and make people pay a fine if they don’t vote? Nah.

Anyway, the mayor who could lose her job because of the runoffs wants to keep them, and the journalist being paid to write about runoffs wants to see less of them. What do the voters think? We’ll find out Tuesday.

GOP’s timing was good … this year

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

Here’s what did not happen on Election Day: The American people did not simply rise up and repudiate President Obama and give Republicans a mandate.

Oh, they did repudiate Obama, but the Republican Party’s big win was more the result of timing and demographic factors that worked entirely in its favor this year and mostly will favor Democrats in 2016.

We’re talking nationally, not about Arkansas. What happened in Arkansas was permanent.

Let’s focus on three big advantages Republicans across the country had working for them.

Our two electorates. The United States is now made up of two distinct voting populations. The one that votes in presidential election years is bigger, younger, and more diverse, favoring Democrats. Many of those voters stay home during midterms, when the leader of the free world is not on the ballot. What’s left is an electorate that is older, whiter, and more affluent – in other words, more Republican.

Second-term midterms. So far, seven U.S. Senate seats have shifted from Democratic to Republican hands, and Sen. Mary Landrieu is probably going to be the eighth in Louisiana’s December runoff. Seven or eight seats sounds like a lot, but that kind of result is not unusual for a midterm election when a president is in his second term and voters are becoming cranky and annoyed. President George W. Bush’s Republicans lost six Senate seats in his second-term midterm, and President Reagan lost eight seats. President Eisenhower, World War II hero and budget balancer, saw his Republican Party lose 13 seats in his second-term midterm elections.

Democrats on the defensive. This year, Democrats were defending 21 of the 36 contested Senate seats, including seven states won by Mitt Romney in 2012. Senators serve six-year terms, so these Democrats were elected during the 2008 presidential election, when they had the advantage, and had to run for re-election this year in a midterm, when the electorate favors Republicans.

The reverse will be true in 2016. Republicans, elected in 2010 when they had an advantage in the midterms (and also after Obamacare was passed) will be defending 24 of the 33 seats up for re-election, and they’ll be doing it in a presidential election year that will be more favorable to Democrats. In seven of those 24 states, Obama won twice.

Republicans will have one historical reality in their favor, and it’s a big one: the fickle American voter. We have a habit of letting one party control the White House for eight years and then giving the other party a shot. In recent years, we’ve gone from eight years of Clinton to eight years of Bush to eight years of Obama. The last time voters let a president’s party stay in power after two terms was 1988, when they elected Reagan’s vice president, George H.W. Bush, for one term.

Of course, what happens between now and 2016 matters. How will Republicans govern now that they will control Congress, and what will President Obama do in his last two years in office? Does Hillary Clinton want the nomination, and if so, will Democrats just give it to her? Are Americans ready to elect her, or any “her”? Will the Republicans beat up each other so badly during the primary process that the nominee emerges too bloodied to win in November? Will one of the two candidates insert their foot so firmly in their mouth that Americans can’t hear anything else they say? Will a well-funded independent candidate like Ross Perot emerge to upset the apple cart?

Those questions remain to be answered. This we know: In 2016, Democrats will have the advantage because it will be a presidential election year, and Republicans will have the advantage because it will be their turn.

Womack: Yes to earmarks, no to pork

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

I’ll try to write this carefully because a member of Congress has presented a nuanced position that can’t be explained in three words or less, is out of step with the prevailing mood of his party, and easily could be misconstrued. That kind of activity usually gets congressmen in trouble these days, which is why they so rarely engage in it.

Here goes: Rep. Steve Womack, R-Ark., is proposing bringing back pork barrel spending.

Oh, wait. I did a terrible job of presenting that carefully. I’m apparently still decompressing from the 60,000 TV ads that ran in the U.S. Senate race in Arkansas this cycle, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

Let’s start over. What the state’s 3rd District congressman proposes is rethinking Congress’ self-imposed ban on earmarks, and maybe bringing them back with significant changes.

Earmarks are congressionally directed spending for specific projects. At their worst, they’re pork. They’re the “bridge to nowhere,” the $223 million Alaska bridge that would have served a tiny population until it was cancelled amidst controversy. In 2011, earmarks were banned by Congress in the name of good government, and they’ve been banned ever since.

Womack, who voted for the ban, says it was a mistake. Speaking to engineers in Springdale last month, he said the money is still being spent – but now by the executive branch. The Constitution says spending is Congress’ job, he said. He said that while some earmarks are wasteful, some can be quite useful. For example, no one knows his district’s highway needs better than he does.

There’s another argument for bringing back earmarks – they might help Congress actually get something done. In the past, earmarks were an important vote-trading tool that helped lawmakers coalesce into a majority. Yes, billions were wasted, but Congress actually functioned as a legislative body instead of the train wreck it’s become. Train wrecks such as the government shutdown cost far more than bridges.

When I mentioned that argument to Womack, he didn’t affirm it – either because he didn’t agree with it, or because he didn’t want to be associated with it. Just talking about earmarks is a big enough leap.

There are, of course, good reasons to continue the earmark ban. According to a recent Gallup Poll, only 14 percent of Americans approve of Congress, while 82 percent disapprove. That’s not exactly a popular mandate for more congressional power. Earmarks might make Congress no less a train wreck – just a more wasteful one. In the past, too many congressmen were judged not by how well they served the country but by how much bacon they brought home. Incumbents already have so much power that, this year, 96 percent of House members and 95 percent of senators who ran for re-election won, according to Politifact. Giving them more pork barrel power only increases the odds they’ll keep their jobs.

Womack is aware of the criticisms. He said earmarks should be reinstated only as part of a much more transparent process, including a cost-benefit analysis for each project. He said earmarks should not be inserted into major, must-pass legislation.

This isn’t the only battle that Womack, a 30-year National Guard veteran, has picked. For years he’s been arguing that Congress should let states and localities enforce their own sales tax regulations for online purchases. Legally, online consumers are supposed to calculate the sales tax for each purchase and then pay what’s required on their own initiative, but few do so.

Womack, a former mayor of Rogers, says the national ban places Main Street businesses at a disadvantage competing with tax-free online retailers. He also says his “Marketplace Fairness Act” isn’t a new tax – it just lets states and localities enforce their current ones.

But that’s another nuanced position, right? It’s so much easier to oppose anything that looks like a tax (while supporting spending increases). This week, House Speaker John Boehner announced Womack’s proposal was off the table for the rest of the year.

Credit to Womack for broaching a couple of difficult subjects. Whether or not they’re good policies, they’re risky politics. It takes a full column to explain Womack’s positions, right or wrong. Right or wrong, it only takes two words to summarize the arguments opponents can use against them: “tax” and “pork.” Which side do you think fits better into a 30-second ad?