Limit state lawmakers to 10 bills

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

During an 81-day session, Arkansas state legislators considered 2,200 bills and passed 1,288 of them into law. That’s a lot in a short amount of time.

The session was relatively brief. The legislative volume was not out of the ordinary, but were there really 1,288 ways Arkansas needed to be fixed – especially this way, this fast?

This is not a column bashing legislators, whom I find to be generally honorable and likable, with flaws like the rest of us. Many are idealists who spent months walking the streets of their hometowns campaigning for office with no guarantee they would win.

They want all that work to mean something, which is why they filed an average of 16.4 bills per legislator. (There are 135 legislative seats, but one was vacant this session.) Many lawmakers are reluctant to vote against each other’s bills for fear of offending someone they may need later for their own legislation – plus, it just feels kind of rude. As a result, many bills are passed with overwhelming majorities, at least in one chamber. Because there are so many bills – and because legislators don’t have staff members to read them – most of the important work happens in committee. There’s just too much to do in too little time.

The Legislature’s cooperative spirit enables it generally to get its work done – unlike Congress. Under the Revenue Stabilization Act, Arkansas state government will not run a deficit this upcoming fiscal year. In contrast, the Congressional Budget Office projects Uncle Sam will add $468 billion to the national debt in 2015 – the equivalent of about $1,459 per American, and this was a good year. In contrast to the Legislature’s 1,288 acts, Congress passed 296 laws over a two-year period in 2013-14 and 283 in 2011-12, according to the Pew Research Center. In other words, the Legislature passed more than twice as many laws in 81 days as Congress passed in four years.

Congress and the Legislature exist in very different universes. Congress deals in trillions while the Legislature deals in billions. Congress governs a vast, diverse country with significant regional and partisan differences. In the Arkansas Legislature, most Democrats and Republicans have similar viewpoints. The politics is less professional in Arkansas – though it’s moving in that direction.

Still, it probably would be best if Congress were more like the Legislature and if the Legislature were a little more like Congress. Passing 1,288 laws in 81 days – that’s just too many.

So here’s a modest proposal: Each legislator should be limited to filing about 10 bills per session. That would have cut the number to 1,340 this year, creating a more deliberate process and giving legislators a chance to focus on their priorities. If a bill is only 11th on their list, it can’t be that important to them.

This should start as a flexible rule of thumb enforced by the Legislature’s culture rather than a formal, legal limit enforced by law. Issues arise late in a session – for example, banning adoption “rehoming” – and legislators need to be able to file another bill if they are the best positioned to do so.

The downside would be that legislators would write longer, broader bills – try to get two for the price of one, in other words. Yes, that’s a danger, but the more a bill tries to do, the more likely it will contain provisions that draw opposition.

In 1,288 ways, legislators over the past three months have changed Arkansas through the force of government. Some of those laws were good and some weren’t, but all of them were passed in a hurried environment that places too much emphasis on passing bills for passing bills’ sake. Lawmakers should slow down and do less, but do it more deliberately.

•••

I need to make a correction. In a column about the Legislature’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act published around April 1, I wrote that I voted against the state’s 2004 amendment banning gay marriage. I had my elections confused. I voted in 2008 against a ban on unmarried couples adopting or fostering children, which also passed. It was aimed at gays and lesbians and also affected heterosexual unmarried couples.

I’m pretty sure I voted for the gay marriage ban in 2004. I would not vote that way today. Americans should not look to the government to define marriage. Let the government focus its attention elsewhere – and pass fewer laws at the state level thanks to a 10-bill limit. See above.

Christie, doc fix: A little honesty in the national debt debate

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

Uncle Sam hangs on for webA couple of things happened this past week that are worth noting because they concern senior citizens (today’s and tomorrow’s) and taxpayers (as usual, mostly tomorrow’s).

On Tuesday, the Senate sent to President Obama the long-awaited and much-discussed Medicare “doc fix.” Each of the past 17 years, Medicare payments to physicians have been scheduled to be cut automatically under something called the sustainable growth rate formula, and each of those years, Congress has suspended those cuts for one year. It’s been a charade, but one with real consequences because Medicare payments to doctors are low, and some doctors routinely threaten to stop treating those patients. Those who still do would like more certainty than these one-year fixes provide.

Now there will be no more last-minute reversals of the pretend spending cuts. The problem, as is usually the case, is that Congress did not offset the costs of the doc fix, either with spending cuts or higher taxes. According to the Congressional Budget Office, the legislation will add $141 billion to the national debt through 2025 – money that almost certainly would have been added anyway, just one year at a time.

Arkansas Sens. John Boozman and Tom Cotton voted for the doc fix, which passed 92-8. Earlier, they voted for an amendment that would have required Congress to offset the bill’s costs. That amendment failed, 58-42.

So we’re still burdening future generations with more debt, but at least we’re being more honest and transparent about it. Unfortunately, that qualifies as progress.

On the same day that the Senate passed the doc fix, New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, a probable presidential candidate, proposed in a speech a number of meaningful reforms to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. Generally speaking, Medicare serves seniors, and Medicaid also serves seniors along with poor people and the disabled.

Christie’s proposals would affect Americans of all income classes. The retirement age would be raised to 69 very gradually (for Medicare, it would reach that age in 2064). Future senior citizens earning annual incomes above $200,000 from other sources no longer would receive Social Security benefits. Wealthier recipients would pay a higher percentage of Medicare premium costs than they do now. Christie would reform the qualification process for Social Security Disability Insurance, which has become a welfare program for younger recipients. Medicaid recipients above the poverty line would be required to pay co-pays rather than basically receive their health care for free.

Why is he talking about those popular programs? Because they are important contributors to the national debt, which has grown from less than $1 trillion in 1981 to more than $18 trillion today. According to the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget, $24.11 of every $100 the federal government spends goes to Social Security, while $14.42 goes to Medicare and $8.60 goes to Medicaid. That’s $47.13 of every $100, an amount that will grow as the baby boomers age.

What’s important about Christie’s speech is not whether he’s offered the right answers, but that he’s talking about the subject at all. Social Security has long been called the “third rail” of American politics: Like the electrified third rail on a subway system, if you touch it, you die. Politicians would rather talk about lowering taxes and increasing spending now because the young and unborn who will pay for those decisions don’t yet vote.

Hopefully, Christie’s plan will at least start a real discussion. A government that is $18 trillion in debt and adding more every year must cut spending, increase tax revenues, or do some combination of both. Other potential presidential candidates – including the two with Arkansas ties, Hillary Clinton and Mike Huckabee – should offer their own concrete proposals, not poll-tested platitudes. Those who want to keep the status quo, or increase spending, or cut taxes should show how they will make the numbers work.

At least then we’d have an honest debate – not just about how big the government should be, but also about how today’s taxpayers pay for the government we already have.

If Christie can’t win that debate, then hopefully someone else can with their own plan that preserves an appropriate social safety net without adding to the debt. We can’t just keep passing government’s costs to our children and grandchildren – like the doc fix does, albeit transparently.

Governor conducts legislative orchestra

Asa for webBy Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Arkansas’ state government was designed to have a weak governor, and that tradition has continued. The framers of the current 1874 Constitution ensured a veto could be overridden by a simple majority vote, and later amendments, such as the one that transferred the governor’s authority to the lieutenant governor when the governor leaves the state, have continued that tradition.

Gov. Asa Hutchinson pretty much took a sledgehammer to all of that during this recent legislative session.

On issue after issue, the Legislature gave him whatever he wanted. He wanted a middle class tax cut. It passed. He wanted to buy time on the Medicaid private option, so he asked legislators to extend it for two years while they study what to do with it. Even those who campaigned on an over-my-dead-body platform said yes. When the House Committee on Public Transportation advanced a bill transferring part of general revenues to highways, Hutchinson said it didn’t fit into his budget, so the sponsor killed it, though with a promise from Hutchinson to appoint a task force to study highway funding.

Then there were the constitutional amendments. Legislative leaders indicated they didn’t really care to refer any of those to the voters, so the process looked dead in its tracks. Then Hutchinson said he wanted two – one to end the aforementioned practice of giving up his powers to the lieutenant governor, and one to increase the fund Arkansas uses to attract economic superprojects like auto plants. Both now will be on the ballot in 2016.

How did a system designed to produce a weak governor instead produce an orchestra conductor like Hutchinson? One explanation is that he displayed extraordinary political skills this session. He took potential train wrecks like the private option and Common Core off the table by appointing task forces to study them, and when all heck broke loose with the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he charted a middle ground that made him a hero to both sides even though he originally supported the bill.

History also was on his side. Hutchinson is the first Republican governor to hold office with a Legislature controlled by Republicans since shortly after the Civil War. His party wanted to govern effectively rather than look like the dog that caught the car and didn’t know what to do with it.

Hutchinson had another explanation during a sit-down session with reporters in his office last Thursday.

“The strength of the governor is from the respect of the office and the recognition that we need to have a leader, and also the desire to have the governor succeed,” he said. “And so that’s impressed me, and that’ s not a Republican thing. That’s a Republican and a Democrat thing. Democrats who opposed me, they not only said it, but they showed it in actions that it is important for Arkansas that the governor succeed.”

Contrast that attitude with this statement made by Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Kentucky, now majority leader, during an interview with National Journal on Oct. 29, 2010: “The single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.”

Democrats often point to that statement. To be fair, according to the fact-checking site Politifact, he said it in the context of discussing historical elections and said in that same interview that Republicans were willing to work with Obama “if he’s willing to meet us halfway.”

Still, Republicans’ priority from day one of Obama’s administration clearly has been to position themselves for future elections – just as Democrats in Washington will behave if a Republican presidential candidate manages to beat Hillary Clinton. The days when the president had a “honeymoon” after being elected may be just a fading memory.

Of course, it’s not the job of Democrats and Republicans to help each other succeed – particularly not in Washington, where the parties have real differences in their stated goals. But Washington could use more of Arkansas’ spirit, and Arkansas probably could use a little of Washington’s. Very little, but a little.

The latter will happen in Arkansas over the course of the next two years. Hard decisions on issues like the private option must be made, and legislators in both parties increasingly will challenge the governor.

It will get tougher for Hutchinson, just as it did for previous governors after they had been in office for a while. Unlike in Washington, most legislators still will want him to succeed, but eventually the honeymoon will be over.

Can one person make a difference?

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

Political professionals are often cynical people, so it was surprising to hear lobbyist and Republican consultant Bill Vickery make this idealistic statement during a recent banquet speech: “There has also never been a time in American politics where one individual can have more of an impact than right at this very moment.”

Journalists can be cynical people, too, so one might say in response, “Yeah, if that individual is Sheldon Adelson.” Adelson is a Las Vegas casino magnate spending a chunk of his fortune on Republican Party presidential politics, so candidates approach him on their knees with hat in hand. In 2012, the process became known as the “Sheldon Adelson primary.”

Can one average person make a difference? In some ways, this democracy is becoming less democratic. Today’s campaign tactics, media landscape and digital data miners have sliced America into distinct electoral blocs that the political pros can manipulate. Moneymen like Adelson, who can make virtually unlimited donations, have tremendous influence over the process.

It’s impossible for normal citizens to compete toe to toe with that, but they do have some powerful weapons these days – their own ideas, their own energy, social media. A YouTube video that goes viral can have more impact than millions of dollars in commercials. Vickery said an energetic Cleveland campaign volunteer for Sen. John Kerry’s 2004 presidential campaign made such a difference in that city that her absence was felt when she was hospitalized. Vickery didn’t mention it, but four years earlier, how many volunteers would have been needed to erase Florida’s 537-vote margin between Bush and Vice President Al Gore? Not many.

In a democracy where the many are just grumbling and complaining, the few who actually act can have an outsized influence. In many counties, the tea party is composed of a small number of Arkansans, usually not bank president types, who together have far more sway than their neighbors because they are organized and involved. When a few hundred activists protesting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act lined the steps leading to the Arkansas House of Representatives, legislators who supported the bill found another route to the chamber, but they couldn’t ignore the crowd. The Legislature itself isn’t composed of members of the state’s elite. Instead it’s mostly average people who decided, “Why not me?” The powerful speaker of the House, Jeremy Gillam, R-Judsonia, owns a berry farm.

The thing that ties a lot of these people together is that they stopped just griping about the government and instead engaged in practical politics. The Cleveland woman was volunteering for the Democratic nominee, not a fringe candidate. Tea party members write letters to the editor, contact their legislators and vote in every Republican primary. Sometimes a Martin Luther King does come along who totally changes the way a nation thinks. But you’re probably not the next Martin Luther King, so get involved where it can matter.

It’s worth noting that Vickery made his comment at Heifer International’s headquarters in Little Rock. The hunger relief organization was started by farmer Dan West, a member of the Church of the Brethren who did some relief work during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s and decided that country’s poorest people could be helped more by giving them a cow instead of just a cup of milk. Since then, Heifer International has provided farm animals and other services to 22.6 million families around the world.

Life is about expectations, and so is politics. If your definition of “making a difference” is “remaking the world to my liking, by myself and without much effort,” then this message isn’t for you. Adelson poured $15 million into Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign, and Gingrich didn’t come close to winning, so you will not fix the national debt with one letter to your congressman. But if you and those like you organize around a common, attainable goal, use the modern tools you have available, and stay committed despite a few setbacks, you’d be surprised at what you might accomplish.

That’s especially the case in state and local politics. At the State Capitol, there’s sort of a little familiar club of legislators, lobbyists, state employees and journalists – and then regular people come in and upset the apple cart sometimes.

That can be you. You can get a lot done, but not by yourself. So, no, generally one person can’t make a difference. But a few one persons can.

Rep. Della Rosa’s efforts to show us the money resisted – this time

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

Della Rosa
Della Rosa

Remember the scene in the movie “Jerry Maguire” where the football player portrayed by Cuba Gooding Jr. makes the sports agent played by Tom Cruise shout, “Show me the money!”?

The part of Gooding was played this legislative session by Rep. Jana Della Rosa, R-Rogers. The part of Tom Cruise was played by a Legislature that, unfortunately, decided to keep silent.

In Arkansas, candidates can file their reports online or on paper. The reports can be viewed one at a time in paper form at the secretary of state’s website, votenaturally.org. Because it’s not searchable, tracking the money requires painstaking research – more than most journalists will take time to do, and certainly more than most citizens have time to do.

Della Rosa, a freshman legislator, tried without success to pass a bill that would have required legislative and statewide candidates to file campaign finance reports online into a searchable database. That would have enabled any citizen with an internet connection to quickly view who contributed to an elected official’s campaign, and how much. It also would have allowed citizens to determine how much various interest groups had donated across the board, and to whom. Candidates must file their reports online in 40 states, Della Rosa argued.

Campaign finance transparency is important not because elected officials supposedly are crooks, because most aren’t. It’s important because all legislators are human beings, and human beings react in predictable ways when given certain incentives. One way is this: Generally, human beings take care of those who take care of them. If you want an idea of what legislators would like to do in office, check out their campaign websites. If you want to know how they actually will vote, check out their campaign finance reports.

Needing 67 votes, House Bill 1233 failed in the House, 48-33, with 19 not voting. Legislative opponents offered unconvincing arguments about slow internet connections, the complexities of filing online, or the possibility of being cited for an ethics violation because of an internet issue. One said he was too “dimwitted” to learn, so Della Rosa offered to help him.

Let’s be charitable and say that opponents were mostly afraid of change and were not thinking creatively. They could just mail their forms to someone with a good internet connection and pay them to input them online, just like they pay the companies that print their yard signs. Della Rosa even amended the bill to allow candidates to opt out by submitting an affidavit stating that they lacked the ability to file online and that doing so was a substantial hardship. The secretary of state’s website would explain that they had opted out. That wasn’t enough.

“I didn’t realize this when I started this, but I think one of the hardest things to do in this building is to convince people to change their own behavior,” Della Rosa told the House on March 26, just before the vote failed. “We make laws – what, we’re at a rate of about 50 a day I think right now towards the end – where we’re telling other people, ‘You should do this. You should do that. This is better for everyone. You should do that.’ One of the hardest things to do is to change your own behavior.”

Sometimes, it takes a while for a good idea to become law – even one based on common sense. This legislative session, lawmakers finally voted to make it possible for a good school district with sound finances to remain open if it falls below 350 students, 12 years after voting to close all school districts that size, no matter their performance.

Maybe Della Rosa can pass her bill in a future session. Or maybe citizens could speed up the timetable by gathering signatures for an initiated act requiring legislative and statewide candidates to file online – without the provision letting candidates opt out. Maybe Regnat Populus, the ethics-promoting citizens group, could take up the cause.

At some point, average citizens must realize that most of the issues that we argue about are like leaves on a tree – blown left and right, falling for a time, and then reappearing in a later season. Campaign finance is a root – probably the biggest root. On every issue, follow the money. Always follow the money.

For Arkansas citizens, that’s still hard to do, but at least Della Rosa is trying to show it to us.

UPDATE: Here’s how the votes stacked up in the House.

Bearing truth a higher standard than not lying

Ten CommandmentsBy Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The Legislature has sent a bill to Gov. Asa Hutchinson that would install a Ten Commandments monument on the Capitol grounds using private funds. Already preoccupied with the controversy over the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, he has not said if he will sign it as of this writing. It’s unknown if the monument would survive the inevitable lawsuit that would follow. If it ever gets built, let’s hope all passersby pay close attention to Commandment #9.

That would be the one that says, “Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.”

I’ve always thought that commandment referred to an untrue accusation or testimony, in and out of court. Some people simplify the commandment as, “Thou shalt not lie.”

Kevin Thompson, pastor of Fort Smith’s Community Bible Church, had a different take recently on his excellent blog, www.kevinathompson.com. He wrote that the Ninth Commandment doesn’t simply prohibit lying. It means, say only what you know to be true.

“Truth telling” is a higher standard than “not lying.” Lying is purposely distorting the truth. Bearing false witness, on the other hand, can be the result of inattentiveness – saying something that might be true but hasn’t been verified. Repeating a rumor isn’t necessarily lying, but it’s bearing false witness.

The times call for a reexamination of this concept. Modern communication tools enable us to share any fleeting idea that enters our minds from the safety (and often anonymity) of our computer screens. Twitter says that more than 500 million Tweets are sent each day. Facebook says it has 1.4 billion users. You know the saying about a lie being repeated often enough that it becomes the truth? Twitter and Facebook add fiber optic cables to the equation.

Social media is one of many realties of modern life that can help us insulate ourselves in our own, self-selected worlds. Most of us are more likely to “friend” and “follow” people who are similar to us than those who are different than us. We live in red and blue states. Most congressional districts are safely Republican or Democrat, the result of the way the lines have been drawn but also the choices Americans have made. The news media we consume simplify complicated political issues into comic book tales, assuring us that we’re on the heroes’ side. Chances are our neighbors and co-workers have mostly the same beliefs and lifestyles as ours. Until a few decades ago, the rich man and the poor man lived in close proximity, and not that differently. Today, we’re separated by miles, gates and walls.

This reality of modern life makes it easier for false witnesses to be repeated. In our self-assuring cliques, we know we won’t be challenged by different perspectives, so we feel safe in making extreme, provocative, unproven statements. Because there are so few filters, our fellow clique members can safely repeat and amplify these false witnesses.

Feeling superior feels so good, but it doesn’t do much to create a more perfect union. So what is an involved citizen supposed to do?

Ancient Israel was not a democracy, but the Ninth Commandment applies to our society. If you don’t know that President Obama is secretly a Kenyan-born jihadist, don’t say it. Instead, rely on demonstrable facts, such as that the national debt has increased from $11.9 trillion since Sept. 30, 2009 – the first fiscal year over which he might be called responsible – to $18.2 trillion today. Meanwhile, if you don’t know that President Bush had something to do with the Sept. 11 attacks, then don’t make that horrible accusation. Instead, cite a 2013 study by Brown University’s Watson Institute for International Studies, which found the Iraq War could end up costing more than $6 trillion when future expenses are counted. And then, because truth-telling involves fairness, add that Obama inherited problems that contributed to the rising debt; or that there hasn’t been a major terrorist attack on U.S. soil since 9-11, so Bush and Obama must have done something right; or that studies can be wrong.

Kinda hard to fit all that into a 140-character Tweet, isn’t it?

The thing about bearing false witness is that you’re less likely to do it if you keep your mouth shut. That not always being possible, the less said, the better.

So I’m shutting up now. Have a good day, and I mean that truthfully.

Government should protect freedom, not enforce belief

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Join our side. All are welcome.

Bumpy ride on highways may continue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Starving the beast only made it hungrier

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Common Core test survives battle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I’m on firmer ground with these observations.

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

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

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

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

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