Asa’s state of the private option address

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

Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s health care reform speech last Thursday was what the State of the Union address ought to be but rarely is – an accurate definition of a problem respecting both sides, followed by a solution that actually has a chance of being enacted.

Hutchinson spoke last week at UAMS before an auditorium full of legislators, health care policymakers, and other interested listeners. The atmosphere was serious and expectant.

Hutchinson started his speech with a history lesson. One of the provisions of the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) expanded Medicaid in the states, but the Supreme Court had made that provision optional. Arkansas had created what Hutchinson called an “innovative” approach: using federal dollars to buy private health insurance instead of just pouring more money into Medicaid.

Hutchinson then accurately defined the two opposing viewpoints on the issue. Because of the private option, 200,000 Arkansans have health insurance, and hospitals are providing far less uncompensated care. However, the state will soon be responsible for up to 10 percent of the costs, which could equal $200 million by 2021. Opponents, he said, are “wise” to be concerned about this.

As he pointed out, the private option has paralyzed Arkansas politics. The votes in the two previous legislative sessions have been close enough that health care providers can’t completely rely on it. So many legislators campaigned this past election on ending the private option that its future is very much in doubt, but what about the 200,000 people?

Now for the solution. Hutchinson asked legislators to broaden the debate. Pointing to a single chart beside him, he said most Medicaid spending has nothing to do with the private option, so why argue over one slice of the pie? He asked legislators to approve the private option for two years, and to create a task force that will study health care reform in general for one year. The task force will produce recommendations based on principles such as minimizing the need for more revenues and increasing recipients’ accountability and work requirements.

It will be interesting where this goes. Arkansas is already involved in a promising health care reform process, the Arkansas Health Care Payment Improvement Initiative. Will the task force build on that, produce a different idea, or just tie a pretty ribbon on the private option and rename it so certain legislators can vote yes? We’ll know in a year, assuming the Legislature passes the bill that would create it.

At the end of the speech, Hutchinson remarked good-naturedly that he had not been interrupted by applause, so the audience clapped. The reason that had been the case was that audience members were listening intently – in order to learn important information, not for cues that would tell them to stand or sit in order to make a political point.

Contrast that with the State of the Union address, delivered two days earlier. President Obama’s speech had some good points in that it had a clear theme (middle-class economics) and a call for civil debate. But as is usually the case, it was marked by a list of proposals that had little chance of being enacted. Members of Congress played their expected parts. It was theater, not policymaking. Much of it will be ignored.

Not that there wasn’t some theater in the UAMS auditorium. Part of what Hutchinson was doing was buying time. He’s willing to change the private option, even significantly. But he wants neither to take health insurance from 200,000 people, nor to turn away the $1.3 billion in federal funds the private option will provide the state this fiscal year. After the speech, some legislators opposed to the private option expressed at least mild support because they said Hutchinson’s plan would end the private option in two years. That was not what he said.

But all that’s to be expected. This is politics. Hutchinson’s address changed the tone of the debate and offered a way forward. The legislation to create the task force has been filed, and there are good reasons for it to pass: Supporters don’t want the private option to fail, and Republicans opposed to the private option want their party’s governor to succeed.

Some still will oppose the plan, but what Hutchinson said won’t be ignored. Good speech.

M.L.K. and R.E. Lee

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

Many Arkansans may not realize it, but the state celebrates two birthdays on the third Monday each January – Dr. Martin Luther King’s, and General Robert E. Lee’s. And that caught some people’s attention this week.

Arkansas has celebrated the two men together since 1985 as a result of an act signed by Gov. Bill Clinton. The combination was done out of convenience. Lee’s birthday, which is Jan. 19 (four days after King’s), was already being celebrated, and there were already so many holidays this time of year. As always, the secretary of state on Monday posted a sign on the State Capitol’s doors stating that offices were closed in honor of the two men.

Two other states, Mississippi and Alabama, also celebrate the two birthdays on the same day. Three other states also honor Lee, but not on the same day as King. Virginia, Lee’s home, separated them in 2000.

Arkansas’ dual holiday has become an issue this year, which happens to be 150 years after the end of the Civil War. Jason Tolbert, a contributor to the website Talk Business & Politics, pointed out the historical inconsistency of honoring King and the Confederate general on the same day. Secretary of State Mark Martin told Tolbert that his having to put both names on the same sign is “embarrassing to me.”

I caught Martin in the halls of the Capitol and asked if the word “embarrassing” was accurate. Yes, he said. Lee had many admirable qualities, but combining the holidays seems inappropriate.

On Wednesday, Rep. Fred Love, D-Little Rock, who is African-American, and Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, who is white, filed separate bills that would remove Lee from the holiday. Gov. Asa Hutchinson, his plate full during his first month in office, didn’t state a position when asked about it in a press conference.

Maybe this is much ado about nothing. Let’s be honest – many of us didn’t really honor either King or Lee Monday. For many of us who happened to work for the right employers, it was just a day off.

But the King-Lee holiday is not really about two men. As celebrated today, it’s a symbol of two very different eras – the Confederacy and the civil rights movement. The first should be remembered thoughtfully, and the second should be celebrated thoughtfully. There’s a difference.

The Civil War was not that long ago, and native-born white Arkansans my age grew up with the sense that “we” lost. Many years ago, I stopped having that sense.

If you think the war was not about slavery, then I’m not going to change your mind. Instead, I encourage you to research those who would know best – those who voted to secede.

Pay particular attention to Mississippi’s declaration of secession, a short document available online. Slavery was the secessionists’ justification for the war. The second paragraph begins, “Our position is thoroughly identified with the institution of slavery – the greatest material interest of the world. Its labor supplies the product which constitutes by far the largest and most important portions of commerce of the earth. These products are peculiar to the climate verging on the tropical regions, and by an imperious law of nature, none but the black race can bear exposure to the tropical sun.”

The secessionists said the Union “advocates negro equality” and that it was trying to “destroy our social system.” “We must either submit to degradation,” they declared, “and to the loss of property worth four billions of money, or we must secede from the Union framed by our fathers, to secure this as well as every other species of property.”

Property.

Regardless of who lost the Civil War, ultimately, for many different reasons and over a long period of time, freedom won.

Isn’t that what should be celebrated on the third Monday of every January?

Can states fix what Congress messed up?

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

Can the usual processes that created the $18 trillion national debt – now more than $57,000 for every American man, woman and child – also be used to pay it down?

If your answer is yes, then I encourage you to check the history books. Almost ever year since the nation was founded, the federal government has added to the national debt, and under current projections, the debt will grow bigger each year, year after year, as far as the eye can see.

It should be clear by now that our nation’s capital will not suddenly see the light of fiscal responsibility, so can anything be done to reverse the slide? Apparently not by Congress, so two separate national movements are attempting to amend the Constitution by employing a never-before-used process led by the states. Under Article 5 of the Constitution, 34 states can call a convention, which would then propose amendments that must be ratified by 38 of them.

One of those efforts, the Convention of the States, proposes an open-ended convention tasked with limiting the powers of the federal government, with suggested amendments that would require a balanced budget, enact term limits, redefine the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, etc. In Arkansas, supporters are considering two versions, according to one of its supporters, Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindsville. He believes at least one will pass.

Nationwide, the effort faces a much steeper climb. The Convention of the States’ goals and its rhetoric are so conservative that it will have a tough time reaching 34 states, let alone 38. Also, the delegates would be free to propose whatever amendments they want, leading to fears of a “runaway convention.” Those fears are unfounded, because any proposed amendments still would require approval by 38 states. But the fear that something crazy might happen has cost the movement some allies.

The other effort, the Compact for a Balanced Budget, also is a long shot but would seem to have a better chance. Unlike the Convention of the States, the Compact proposes a single amendment. The amendment states that the government cannot spend more than it collects unless it borrows under a debt limit that can be increased only with approval by a majority of state legislatures. Also, all future tax increases would have to be passed by a two-thirds vote of Congress, though a majority vote could close loopholes or replace the income tax with a national sales tax.

With the Compact for a Balanced Budget, we know what we’re getting. The states that sign up agree to the wording upfront. The delegates would assemble, vote yes and go home.

Alaska and Georgia have already signed on as members of the Compact. Organizers see Arkansas as one of 30 other states they must have. Then they would have to sway six other states where passage would be harder.

In Arkansas, Rep. Nate Bell, R-Mena, pre-filed a Compact for a Balanced Budget bill before the legislative session began. He was one of the early supporters of the Convention of the States, and although he still favors it, he thinks this is a better way.

I like it, too, and not just because it has a better chance of passing. It creates a mechanism that helps Congress be more fiscally responsible. It gives states the ability to rein in Washington. It makes it hard for Congress to raise taxes, but not impossible, particularly not by closing some of the loopholes that riddle the tax code.

Bell, who is on the Compact for a Balanced Budget’s national board, plans to push his bill, HB1006, later in the session. Will it pass? It depends on a lot of factors. Legislators, including Bell and Ballinger, have a lot on their plates as they consider thousands of bills in three months’ time.

One of those is the Revenue Stabilization Act, passed each session since 1945. Because of that act, Arkansas has a mechanism in place to produce a balanced budget – which is one of the main reasons the state, unlike the federal government, always has one.

Arkansas’ vice president

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

It may be that the voters elected not so much a lieutenant governor as a vice president of Arkansas.

By that I mean that Lt. Gov. Tim Griffin looks like he might fulfill the same role filled by some vice presidents – Al Gore, Dick Cheney, Joe Biden – as a trusted and valued member of the administration, not a separate and often forgotten officeholder.

Griffin, a lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserves, sees his most important role as serving as Gov. Asa Hutchinson’s junior officer – advocating for the governor’s legislation, making speeches on his behalf, etc. He even said in a phone interview Wednesday that he has been “very active with the governor recommending personnel.”

He will try to pass his own stuff, as some previous lieutenant governors have done. The reason Arkansas has a lottery is because of Lt. Gov. Bill Halter. But, he said, his first priority will be helping Hutchinson with his agenda.

“I make a point of speaking with the governor or his chief of staff every single day,” Griffin said.

Under the Arkansas Constitution, unlike the president and vice president, the governor and lieutenant governor are completely separate offices elected on completely different parts of the ballot.

Governors and lieutenant governors don’t have to be members of the same party, they don’t have to work together – they don’t even have to like each other. I’m trying to think of the best word to describe the relationships Gov. Mike Beebe had with his lieutenant governors, Halter and Mark Darr. “Strained,” maybe? Before that, Gov. Mike Huckabee and Lt. Governor Win Rockefeller were personally friendly and in fact grew quite fond of each other in their latter days together – but their day-to-day paths did not cross that much. I worked for both of them at different times, by the way.

Constitutionally, the lieutenant governor is a weak office – so weak, in fact, that Sen. Jimmy Hickey, R-Texarkana, and Sen. Keith Ingram, D-West Memphis, have proposed an amendment to get rid of it. The lieutenant governor has only three constitutional duties: to serve as governor if the elected governor does not or cannot finish his or her term; to preside over the Senate when it is in session, which is a largely ceremonial responsibility; and to act as governor when the governor is traveling out of state, a duty so antiquated that even Griffin says it needs to go.

It’s rare indeed for an elected official to advocate for lessening his or her power, let alone take actions to make it happen. Griffin says he intends to push for getting rid of that provision.

“When the president of the United States leaves the United States and goes to China, he doesn’t give up being president of the United States,” he said.

Changing the provision will require a constitutional amendment, which is no sure thing. In fact, voters rejected the idea in 2002. But that was before smart phones, Facebook and Skype made the world so connected. We all know the governor is no more out of pocket in Branson or Dallas than he is in parts of Arkansas.

This also is noteworthy: Griffin has cut his staff in half. Darr had four full-time staff members, and Griffin will have two, plus interns. He said he plans to return the extra money back to the state and hopes to set an example for the rest of state government.

So basically, Arkansas has a lieutenant governor who wants to relinquish a not very useful constitutional power. However, he probably will exercise much more day-to-day influence than previous lieutenant governors because of his working relationship with the governor.

He made a pretty smart trade, don’t you think?

Want to be heard? Focus on state, not D.C.

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

A new governor has assumed office, and legislators have begun the 2015 legislative session, but if you’re like most interested Arkansas citizens, you probably care more about what’s happening in Washington, D.C., than about what’s happening in Little Rock.

That’s understandable. The issues are bigger and the stakes higher in our nation’s capital. National politics lends itself better to story lines, heroes and villains. It’s the American flag to which we pledge allegiance.

Of course you should care about national politics, and you should try to change it for the better. But if that’s all you care about, and state politics is just an afterthought, I encourage you to focus more of your thoughts a little closer to home, for two reasons.

One is that in our state capital, democracy still works, and in Washington, it doesn’t – not the way it’s supposed to work, anyway. Washington politics these days is about pleasing special interests, scoring political points, and maintaining power. Republicans and Democrats have dug into their trenches and are mostly shooting at each other across no man’s land, and that’s not likely to change regardless of how much you or I yell at the TV.

In Little Rock, meanwhile, Gov. Asa Hutchinson and legislators will engage in civil discourse about important issues during this legislative session. How civil? House Speaker Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, appointed Democrats to chair four of the House committees, which would never happen in Washington. And how important? Over three months, legislators will cut taxes and decide if the state should build a new $100 million prison or instead change the laws so that fewer people are incarcerated. While elected officials in Washington will bicker endlessly about health care, elected officials in Little Rock eventually will come to a decision regarding the private option and the 200,000 people it serves.

The other reason to focus a little more on state politics and a little less on Washington? Let’s turn to the late Dr. Stephen Covey, author of “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People.” Covey taught that we all reside in the middle of two concentric circles, a larger “circle of concern” and a smaller “circle of influence.” The circle of concern is what we care about but can’t affect. The circle of influence, we can affect. Invest your energies in the circle of influence, Covey taught.

Very few of us non-billionaires can influence what happens in Washington. Very few of us will ever meet President Obama.

But Arkansas governors are highly accessible. Hutchinson probably will appear at some event in your community or in a nearby one before too long, and you can approach him to share a concern or just ask him about his grandchildren.

State legislators, moreover, are regular people with limited staffs. They consider thousands of bills in three months’ time. On some issues they receive lots of constituent input, but on others not so much, so the words of a few carry a lot of weight. Sen. Jake Files, R-Fort Smith, thought of two instances off the top of his head where he sponsored and passed a bill based on the urging of a single constituent – one that changed a restitution law after someone’s four-wheeler was stolen, and one allowing police to administer a saliva test to suspected drunk drivers.

“Literally one or two phone calls can make a big difference in a yes vote or a no vote,” he said.

So Mr. Regular Arkansan, if you can make your case to your legislator, and if you’re a little persistent, you can change public policy in your circle of influence, which is the state of Arkansas.

Isn’t that better than yelling at the TV?

What should elected officials be paid?

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

The toughest job in state government belongs not to the governor-elect or to the 134 legislators preparing to spend three months considering thousands of bills. It doesn’t belong to the Arkansas Supreme Court justices – a majority of them female for the first time, by the way.

It belongs to the seven people who must soon decide what to pay these folks.

That’s the appointed task of the Independent Citizens Commission, which we voters in November created through Issue 3, now known as Amendment 94. That’s the same amendment that, among other provisions, extended term limits and banned lobbyists’ gifts to individual legislators.

The amendment removed from the Legislature the decision-making authority for salaries for constitutional officers, legislators, and judges. The seven commission members can decide to pay those officials whatever they want to pay them, so long as the initial proposal is presented by Feb. 2, and then after a public comment period, their decision is final. In the future, they can adjust salaries up or down as much as 15 percent.

Most other dollars spent by state government are appropriated by the Legislature. The commission’s decisions, in contrast, come off the top of the budget. That’s why veteran journalist Ernie Dumas told the commission on Dec. 30, “This is the most powerful commission in many ways in the history of the state.”

So far, the commission has had a tough time getting a handle on its responsibilities. This past Wednesday, it began receiving the information it needs most – a comparison of Arkansas salaries with other states. For some positions, it’s fairly straightforward. The governor’s salary of $86,890 is the country’s second lowest, above Maine. The attorney general’s salary of $72,408 is dead last. The chief justice of the Arkansas Supreme Court ranks 27th among his peers with a salary of $160,001.

But with legislators, it’s much harder to make a comparison. Some legislatures are full-time, and some are very part-time. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, Arkansas is one of 23 states where being a legislator is about two-thirds of a full-time job, but that’s a rough estimate.

Determining how much legislators earn in a given year is tricky, too. Their salary is $15,869, they’re paid extra for leadership positions, and they’re paid per diem expenses of $150, plus mileage, when they travel to the Capitol if they live 50 miles or more from it. That’s supposed to cover meals and lodging, but most of us could get by on less than that or just commute. Those who live closer are paid $61 a day for meals, which is far more than I would spend. They also receive $1,200 a month for office expenses, they get $410 monthly for their state health insurance, and they eventually can become eligible for retirement benefits, though those will be small unless they also work elsewhere in state government.

In other words, those who work the system right do OK, but it’s really not enough to make a living for a job that takes a lot of time and comes with a lot of expenses.

Legislators in most surrounding states supposedly spend a comparable amount of time on their jobs, and Arkansas is in the middle when it comes to salaries, apparently. The commission was given information Wednesday from the National Conference of State Legislatures that those in Missouri ($35,915) and Oklahoma ($38,500) make more than twice as much in annual salary. Tennessee’s lawmakers make $20,203. Louisiana’s make $16,800 but receive less in office expenses. Mississippi’s make less, $10,000, but supposedly work less. Texas legislators make only $7,200.

I’ve sat through three long meetings, and the commission is acting in good faith. It ultimately will vote to raise salaries, which, frankly, is why it was created. It was just too politically awkward for lawmakers to do it on their own. Ideally, salaries will increase while legislative expense reimbursements are reduced, but the commission can only recommend changes to those. Legislators still control those dollars, though legislative leaders say the commission’s recommendations will carry a lot of weight.

Really, here’s what commission members are wrestling with regarding legislative salaries: Pay too little, and good people can’t run because they can’t afford it. Pay too much, and lawmaking stops being an act of service.

They don’t have much time to decide how to strike that balance. Feb. 2 will be here soon.

Huckabee flies the Millennium Falcon into the asteroid belt

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

Do you remember the scene in “The Empire Strikes Back” when C-3PO told Han Solo, “Sir, the possibility of successfully navigating an asteroid field is approximately 3,720 to 1” and Han Solo replied, “Never tell me the odds”?

I bring that up because I’m about to play C-3PO to Mike Huckabee’s potential presidential bid.

Huckabee announced this past week that he is ending his Fox News television show because he’s seriously considering running for president again. If he runs, he’ll have to get past a lot of asteroids in order to win the election.

The Republican Party coalition is composed of at least four important elements: super-wealthy anti-government activists; middle-class anti-tax tea partiers; social conservatives; and business establishment types.

Huckabee, for whom I worked as a communications aide a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, has a history of policy decisions and public statements that do not endear him to the first two groups in that coalition. As governor, he helped create a government health care program, ARKids First, and helped pass a one-eighth-cent conservation tax written permanently into the Arkansas Constitution. Those aren’t necessarily bad positions, but they make him vulnerable to attack. The most important super-wealthy anti-government group, the Club for Growth, does not like him at all, and he doesn’t like it, either. In fact, he called it the “Club for Greed.”

Huckabee is solid with the social conservatives, and they will make him competitive in Iowa and other states early during the Republican primaries. But social conservatives are not as powerful as they once were in the party. One of their most important issues, opposition to gay marriage, is no longer the position of a majority of Americans. If Huckabee is the only social conservative in the race, he still might be able to find a niche and be competitive for a while. But if others, such as former Sen. Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania, enter the race, the vote will be divided.

The fourth member of the coalition, business establishment types, will be looking to support one of their own, a Mitt Romney or a Jeb Bush – somebody with a lot of money who can raise a lot more. And that leads us to the really big rock in the 2016 asteroid field.

Hillary Clinton.

Republicans have lost four of the past six presidential elections and lost the popular vote in one of the other two. They need to win this one, or it’s going to start looking bad. They had a shot in 2012, but the Republican primary process was awful. The candidates in a crowded field beat each other up for a year and forced Romney to take positions he obviously didn’t really support. The process moved him too far to the right and made him look like a flip-flopper.

If that happens again, and if Clinton decides to run, Republicans are toast. She can spend a year criss-crossing the country raising money before cheering crowds and looking presidential, while they tear each other down trying to appeal to the various parts of the coalition.

To prevent that, Republicans will try to follow the model from 2000, the last time they won an election following a two-term Democratic administration. As they did with George W. Bush that year, the party’s leaders will try to create a process where everyone coalesces behind a single candidate long before it becomes too bloody. The anointed will be someone like Jeb Bush, Romney, or New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie – someone with the support of the two most important groups in the party’s coalition, the super-wealthy anti-government activists and the business establishment types. Those are the ones with the money.

I started this column by comparing myself to C-3PO for a reason: I’m just the bystander, while Huckabee is the one flying the Millennium Falcon into the asteroid field. Unexpected things happen in presidential campaigns. In 2008, Clinton was the anointed candidate following eight years of a president from the other party, and she didn’t win her party’s nomination. If she doesn’t run this time, it would change the whole dynamic.

Still, the odds are against Huckabee – probably not 3,720 to 1, but steep nonetheless.

Time to renew the Constitution

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

Think everything that’s wrong with this country is President Obama’s fault, or the Republicans’, or both? Nah. The real problem isn’t a person or party. The real problem is that America’s political system doesn’t work anymore. If we “threw out all the bums,” pretty soon we’d decide that the new bunch were bums, too.

Let’s illustrate the political system’s problems using Obamacare.

Remember what the health care system was like in 2008? If you were sick, the insurance companies wouldn’t cover you. If you were sick too long, they’d drop you.

The entire system was (and still is) based on compensating medical providers for treating us, not for curing us or preventing illness. As a result, American health care is misdirected and costs far more than it does elsewhere, making the country less competitive and adding to the national debt. People die because it’s based on the wrong incentives.

Such a system did not need tweaking. It needed an overhaul. A lengthy national conversation involving medical providers, insurers and patients should have occurred. Democrats and Republicans should have worked together to create solutions. Reforms should have occurred in stages, with the states serving as laboratories of democracy. It should have taken a decade.

Can you even imagine that? Not only did it not happen, but it could not have happened, for many reasons. Democrats and Republicans had no incentives to work together – except for the good of the country, and that wasn’t enough because playing politics was more important. The job had to be rushed because the 2010 elections began the instant after Obama took the oath of office in 2009. It’s all a big game now.

The system made it impossible to reform health care the way it should have been reformed. And so we got what we got – a law altering American life that was passed quickly without broad support. I don’t hate it as much as some people do, given what it replaced. A lot of people have health insurance that didn’t have it before. But it’s complicated, messy and too centrally directed, and it doesn’t do enough to contain costs. We’re not sure where it’s going, and so people fear it, and understandably so. Now that Republicans control Congress, they’ll pretend to try to torpedo it, but they don’t have anything to offer in its place.

This is no way to run a railroad.

The Constitution has served us well for more than two centuries and is an example for the rest of the world. But the political system can no longer address big problems responsibly. The Founding Fathers created a government. Today’s elected officials can hardly pass a budget.

Meanwhile, the system has not prevented what the Founding Fathers hoped it would prevent. Government has grown far bigger than they intended. Service in Congress has become a career. A political class of lobbyists, campaign professionals and influencers make their livings by extracting taxpayer money and/or sowing discord. A wealthy aristocracy with unlimited resources exerts too much influence over policymakers.

The Founding Fathers anticipated some of this, but they could not have known what life would be like in the 21st century. And so the Constitution needs to be renewed through the amendment process. Examples to be considered should include, among others, term limits, campaign finance reform, and some kind of balanced budget requirement.

It’s hard to imagine Congress making any of this happen, but a movement, the Convention of the States, is trying to amend the Constitution through a states-led process that has never been used before. An Arkansas chapter is trying to pass a resolution through the state Legislature. Because it takes 34 states to call a convention, it will be an uphill battle nationally.

Our political system doesn’t do what it was meant to do and can’t solve new problems, either. The Founding Fathers rightfully made the Constitution difficult to amend. However, the Constitution itself was a revolutionary document written by people who understood that sometimes things need to be shaken up.

Uncertainty results in an unpaved road

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

The last gravel stretch of highway in Arkansas, part of Highway 220 in Crawford County, will not be paved for a while, providing the latest example of how uncertainty about the federal government affects so much of everything these days.

Highway Department officials decided not to move forward with that project, along with two others, at its next bid letting Jan. 27 because they can’t count on the feds. The process works like this: The state builds highways, bills the federal government, and then is reimbursed for part of the cost. Federal funding pays for about 70 percent of highway construction in Arkansas.

Highways traditionally have been funded mostly from state and federal motor fuels taxes, which have the advantage of being a user fee. Unlike so much of the government, the person benefitting from the government service at least indirectly pays for it. In Arkansas, the combined taxes are 40.2 cents per gallon of gasoline and 47.2 cents for diesel. At the end of each fill up, drivers can calculate how much they paid the government for their highways without needing an accountant and without fear of the IRS.

But the federal portion of the motor fuels tax (18.4 cents per gallon of gasoline and 24.4 cents for diesel) hasn’t been raised since 1993. Since then, highways have become more expensive to build and maintain, while cars have become more fuel-efficient, which means drivers are buying less fuel and paying less in fuel taxes.

As a result, the federal Highway Trust Fund, which pays for highways, almost dropped to zero in 2014. At the last minute, Congress, as it so often does, patched it with a quick fix funded largely by gimmicks that borrowed from the future and will only provide enough money until the middle of 2015. After that, money will come in and out, but it won’t cover everything, and there will be nothing in the bank. That situation makes it hard for highway departments to plan projects that cost millions of dollars and require years of work.

The quickest solution is to raise the gas tax, but that’s unlikely to happen because voters don’t want to pay more at the pump. So in recent years, money has been shifted to highways from the rest of the federal budget, adding to the national debt. Congress is looking for other solutions, some of which are responsible and some that are, ahem, more creative. Will it decide to do anything, and if so, what will that be? No one knows.

If this were simply about one stretch of gravel road in Crawford County, it wouldn’t be a big deal. Unfortunately, uncertainty about Congress and the federal government pervades the economy – which, it should be pointed out, is doing well right now. Maybe we’re all getting used to it, but these fiscal cliffs and government shutdowns still take a toll.

In December, Congress did pass a $1.1 trillion bill that will fund a big part of the government through the rest of the fiscal year, so there shouldn’t be too big of a crisis for a while. But Congress also kept some of the waters muddied by extending 55 tax deductions retroactive to the beginning of 2014 but not for 2015. The purpose of a deduction is to encourage behavior, but for that to happen effectively, people have to know what the rules will be moving forward. Beneficiaries of those deductions might assume Congress again will extend them retroactively, but they don’t know that with certainty, and that affects how they will plan and invest.

The big national argument is always about the size of the government, and rightfully so. But the truth is that people are resourceful, and if they know the rules, the economy can thrive even when the government is bigger than it should be. Like a tree growing on a rocky mountain, job creators of all sizes will take root and grow in less than ideal conditions.

But that tree only grows because the rules are clear – keep digging to find the nutrients, and reach toward the sun. This can be done even in inhospitable rocky terrain.

It’s much harder to do it in shifting sands.

Make Cuba thirsty

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

You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make it drink. That’s how Manny Scott used to see it.

Scott, a professional speaker, was one of those kids who grew up in a gang-infested inner-city neighborhood and didn’t have much of a future until a caring teacher, Erin Gruwell, came into his life. The movie “Freedom Writers” told the story of Gruwell and her students.

Scott now travels the country telling his story and encouraging audiences to care. Addressing Arkansas school board members Dec. 11, he told of being asked in Texas about what to do with students who refuse help. “You can lead a horse to water,” he had replied, but before he had finished the statement, a lifelong rancher had excitedly corrected him by saying that while it’s true that you can’t make a horse drink, “You sure as blank can slap some salt in its mouth and make it thirsty.”

For 53 years, the United States has tried to make Cuba drink. Actually, it’s tugged that horse by the reins, pushed it from behind, and grabbed it by its mane and pulled. It’s tried yelling at the horse, pleading with it, and reasoning with it. Despite Uncle Sam’s best efforts, the horse has stubbornly refused to comply, growing ever scrawnier in the process.

Earlier this month, President Obama reintroduced the very American concept that if something isn’t working, try something else. It’s why we have light bulbs. He said the United States would open diplomatic relations with Cuba and try to accomplish through engagement what it failed to accomplish by heavy-handedness. In Arkansas, Sen. John Boozman and Rep. Rick Crawford, both Republicans, reacted favorably. The Arkansas Farm Bureau and other state agricultural groups said it was a good idea.

Opponents had a different response: Keep pulling on that rein until that horse does what we tell it to do.

While Obama can re-establish relations, it will be up to Congress to lift the trade embargo that has given the Castro brothers, Fidel and Raul, a convenient villain to blame. Given the partisan makeup of Congress and the reactions of many Republicans, it seems likely that the embargo will remain in place for a while. In Arkansas, Sen.-elect Tom Cotton and Rep. Steve Womack were critical of the announcement, saying or implying that it amounted to appeasement.

The concern is understandable, but if at first you don’t succeed, for goodness’ sake, try something else. The United States tried to outlast Fidel Castro and ended up with his brother, who’s 83. Maybe both will die soon, and a democracy will arise from the grass roots. Or maybe Raul will stick around for another decade and then be replaced by one of the Castros’ sons. North Korea, after all, is now led by the dictatorial grandson of its dictatorial Great Leader.

Instead of the United States trying unsuccessfully to make Cuba become a democracy with a free market economy, wouldn’t it be better to make it thirstier for those things so it would choose them on its own? An end to the embargo would expose Cubans to the freedoms and prosperity that some of their countrymen braved 90-mile raft trips across the ocean to obtain. American businessmen would introduce Cubans to ideas the Castros could not hope to contain. Surely the country has many budding entrepreneurs whose wits enabled them to supplement their incomes amidst the deprivations of communism. The growing free market would require online access, which would further expose Cubans to non-Castro ideas. Missionaries from the States would share their faith and give Cubans something besides the revolution to worship.

Many Cubans no doubt already thirst for freedom and opportunity. The United States should try to make them thirstier. Do that, and eventually the horse will drink. After 53 years, it’s time to let go of the reins and try using some salt.