Crawford: Blueprints without constitutional amendment won’t pass budget

April 20, 2014 |  by  |  Debt and deficits, Politics, U.S. Congress  |  No Comments  |  Share

Rick Crawford

On April 10, the House of Representatives narrowly voted for a budget plan by Rep. Paul Ryan, R-Wis., that, on paper, would have balanced the budget in 10 years.

Rep. Rick Crawford, who represents eastern Arkansas’ 1st District, doesn’t trust paper. Or Congress.

Crawford voted no to that budget blueprint and also to another one by the Republican Study Committee. That one, which failed by a wide margin, would have balanced the budget by 2017 – again, only on paper. Both plans would have reduced taxes and spending, including by repealing Obamacare and by replacing the current Medicare system with subsidies to seniors to purchase insurance. Democrats countered with a plan that left spending on Obamacare and Medicare alone, raised taxes, and didn’t balance the budget – on paper or otherwise. None of these plans had a chance of passage.

The state’s other House members – Rep. Tim Griffin in central Arkansas’ 2nd District; Rep. Steve Womack in Northwest Arkansas’ Third District; and Rep. Tom Cotton who represents everything else in the Fourth District – voted yes to the Ryan plan. Cotton was the only Arkansas congressman who voted yes to the Republican Study Committee plan as well.

Crawford believes all these budget blueprints fail to tackle the underlying structural issues that are increasing the national debt, and that making long-range plans is pointless because Congress changes every two years. What’s needed, he says, is a constitutional amendment requiring a balanced budget or one that would limit spending to a certain percentage of the nation’s gross domestic product.

Crawford pointed to the 1990s, when President Bill Clinton and Congress managed to briefly balance the budget. It wasn’t long before the red ink started flowing again because there was nothing structurally to stop it.

“I’m not an obstructionist,” he said in an interview. “I’m not part of the ‘h—, no caucus.’ I’m trying to be a constructive legislator, but the reality is we’ve seen this over and over and over again, and Congress keeps doing the same thing and expecting a different result.”

The mechanisms Crawford proposes both are problematic. A balanced budget amendment must include a provision allowing Congress to vote by super-majority to deficit-spend – in the event of war or a national emergency, for example. That clause would be abused. Moreover, deficit spending can be helpful during a recession, assuming the government would pay the money back in good times, which, unfortunately, it never does. A spending limit amendment, meanwhile, might force Congress to take a meat cleaver versus a scalpel approach to cutting programs. Like the balanced budget amendment, Congress would try to circumvent it.

At this point, however, it’s getting harder to see what alternatives are available. The national debt is $17.6 trillion and climbing. The Founding Fathers unfortunately did not include anything in the Constitution that would keep Congress from spending money it does not have. The U.S. government has never, not since 1790, finished a year debt-free. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me 224 times, shame on me.

Only 12 Republicans voted against the Ryan plan, and they did it for different reasons. Crawford says many congressmen agree some kind of structural reform is needed. But he says he may be the only one insisting on a constitutional amendment in order to move forward.

“You have these conversation in private,” he said. “You know, you sit next to somebody on the House floor and, ‘You’re voting no on the budget?’ ‘Yep.’ ‘And how come?’ I tell them why. They go, ‘Yeah, that makes a heck of a lot of sense. It sure does. You’re right.’ And then they turn around and vote yes.”

There are 535 members of Congress, all with differing agendas and ideas. So, in the immediate future, expect to see lots of blueprints, but no balanced budgets.

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Help wanted for 400 jobs, and more

What would happen if an out-of-state employer was prepared to build a factory in Arkansas and pay 500 people a starting salary of $50,000 a year – but was having trouble finding the employees?

The state of Arkansas and the local community would pull out all the stops for that $25 million annual payroll. After ensuring the industrial park had adequate water, wastewater and electrical connections, there might be an offer of state-financed employee training. Then there would be a big press announcement with the governor, the mayor and the plant manager.

What if I told you a similar opportunity already exists with one of Arkansas’ established employers, immediately, with no need for a factory?

Here’s what Steve Williams, CEO of North Little Rock-based Maverick Transportation, told me about his trucking company’s situation.

“I’d go out and buy, easily go out and buy 500 trucks … and have more than enough business for those people to haul. I just can’t find 500 people to train to put in the trucks to do that. It’s literally, they do not exist.”

Because he can’t find enough drivers, Williams is buying about 100 trucks, leaving unfilled 400 jobs with starting salaries of about $50,000 a year. Some truck drivers earn $80,000.

Maverick Transportation is not the only trucking company looking for drivers. The American Trucking Associations estimates that the industry will need to find about a million in the next 10 years. There are many trucking companies in Arkansas. Those trucks also have to be maintained and repaired.

A person can go from unemployed to a truck driving job offer in 20 weeks at a cost of $10,400. That’s what it takes to earn a commercial driver’s license at the Diesel Driving Academy in Little Rock. Barry Busada, senior vice president, said many motor carriers will reimburse drivers for the cost of that tuition after hiring them.

I’ve oversimplified this situation. Many long-distance truck drivers are away from home a couple of weeks at a time, which is why turnover at many carriers is 100 percent a year. New government enforcement mechanisms have reduced the labor pool by forcing carriers to hire only drivers with clean records, which is not a bad thing.

Still, truck driving is a solid, middle class job requiring a skill that can be gained in 20 weeks. Very few college graduates make that kind of money after four or five years of a taxpayer-financed university education.

Two thoughts. First, jobs out there, even in this economy, and not just in trucking.

Second, Arkansas’ education system and workforce policies should be about filling jobs as much as creating them. Yes, Arkansas should nurture high-tech companies and the so-called “jobs of the future.” But Maverick is ready to hire 400 people now, and those jobs don’t require constructing college classrooms or remaking the K-12 public education system. Plus, truck driving jobs can’t be outsourced to China. Diesel Driving Academy students are eligible for federal student aid. Could Arkansas also create or at least encourage truck driving scholarships or loans?

This is not just about driving trucks. It’s about the value Arkansas places on work that doesn’t require a desk or a college degree. In the recent fiscal session, Sen. Jane English, R-Little Rock, changed her vote on the private option from a no to a yes as part of a deal to revamp the state’s workforce training system. English, who has worked years in this field, says the current system is too duplicative, too inefficient, and doesn’t meet the needs of employers or workers. Young people are not encouraged to work in skilled, blue-collar jobs. People aren’t being trained for the jobs that actually are out there.

That would include truck driving, where 400 people could make $50,000 a year, if Maverick Transportation could only find them.

What SS and Medicare reforms WOULD Sen Pryor support?

I asked Sen. Mark Pryor Tuesday what reforms to Social Security and Medicare he WOULD support during a press conference where he received the endorsement of the National Committee to Protect Social Security and Medicare.

He said he supported cutting waste, fraud and abuse in Medicare; allowing it to bargain for prescription drugs; and emphasizing preventive care. When pressed, he criticized his opponent’s votes and then called for bipartisan solutions.

We cannot balance the budget without reforming Social Security and Medicare. Mandatory spending, of which those two programs are the major part, composes 64 percent of the federal budget, and that number will rise as the baby boomers age.

Pryor knows this, but he’s not going to say so during an election year.

At least he acknowledged there’s a problem.

U.S. can’t afford not to invest in Alzheimer’s research

April 13, 2014 |  by  |  Debt and deficits, Health care  |  No Comments  |  Share

Advocates for the Alzheimer’s Association made a push in Congress this week for more funding for research. They based their argument on the costs of Alzheimer’s. This disease, which causes so much pain for patients and their families, also threatens the nation’s financial health.

According to the association, the total health care cost of caring for individuals with Alzheimer’s will be $214 billion this year, with Medicare and Medicaid paying $150 billion of that. Almost 20 percent of everything the federal government spends on Medicare is spent caring for patients with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia.

As the baby boomers age and as costs of care increase, the numbers become truly scary. By the middle of this century, overall annual medical costs for Alzheimer’s and other dementias are projected to rise to $1.2 trillion.

More than five million Americans now have Alzheimer’s – 200,000 of them under the age of 65. It is the country’s sixth leading cause of death. About 52,000 Arkansans have it – 8,000 of them between the ages of 65-74, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

Progress has been made in recent years with other diseases – most notably AIDS, which was a certain death sentence a couple of decades ago until it became a national priority. Between 2000 and 2010, deaths attributed to HIV fell 42 percent. They also fell for stroke, heart disease, prostate cancer and breast cancer.

But deaths attributed to Alzheimer’s increased 68 percent over that same time period. While five approved drugs will treat the symptoms for 6-12 months in half the patients, there’s no cure, no long-term effective treatment, and no means of prevention.

Congress did increase funding for research by $100 million this year, which was a good start. However, for every $1 that the National Institutes of Health now spends on Alzheimer’s research, Medicare and Medicaid spend $265 on patient care, and it’s often not the kind of care that prolongs productivity or enhances quality of life. We’re warehousing a lot of people.

The Alzheimer’s Association says that, if the onset of Alzheimer’s could be delayed five years, the national costs of care would be cut by half. It’s asking for another $200 million for research, which is a significant increase in this kind of budgetary environment. On the other hand, it’s less than the cost of two of the Pentagon’s proposed 2,400 new F-35 Joint Strike Fighter planes – a weapons system that, as “60 Minutes” recently reported, is $163 billion over budget and seven years behind schedule.

Alzheimer’s is a clear and present danger. If we’re truly worried about America’s future, couldn’t we get by on 2,398 planes and use the savings from the other two to fund Alzheimer’s research? If not, I’m betting we can find $200 million somewhere in the federal budget.

None of this, of course, is taking into account the human toll Alzheimer’s takes on individuals and their families. Alzheimer’s is a particularly villainous disease. It robs individuals of their golden years, when they still have work to do and wisdom to offer. The mental decline can be rapid, but the physical death can stretch into decades. For loved ones, the long goodbye can be an almost unbearable mix of exhaustion, distraction, grief and guilt.

When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, Americans mobilized for action. The same occurred when the Russians beat us into space.

Alzheimer’s is that kind of threat. Discovering a cure would be a gift to the world. Find the $200 million.

Pryor faces headwinds despite lead

April 10, 2014 |  by  |  Elections, Politics, U.S. Congress  |  No Comments  |  Share

Is Sen. Mark Pryor really ahead in the U.S. Senate race?

That’s the finding of a new Talk Business-Hendrix College Poll, which says that Pryor leads his opponent, U.S. Rep. Tom Cotton, 45.5 percent to 42.5 percent.

The race hasn’t moved much in that poll since October 2013, when Pryor led, 42-41 percent. To win, the campaigns and their allies will be focusing their efforts in two areas. One is motivating the base to turn out to vote, and the other is going after the other 12 percent – the 8 percent who are undecided, the 2 percent who say they will vote for Libertarian Nathan LaFrance, and the 2 percent who say they will vote for Green Party candidate Mark Swaney.

In other words, expect a lot of political commercials in the next seven months. Control of the U.S. Senate may depend largely on the outcome of this race.

I need to disclose this somewhere: I’m a freelance journalist, and one of my clients is Talk Business. Back to the column.

This is just one poll. Despite its findings, Pryor still faces considerable headwinds, which is why if I had to bet money on who’s going to win, I’d pick Cotton. Momentum, history, and the year the election is occurring are not on Pryor’s side.

Let’s start with momentum – specifically, the Republican Party’s in Arkansas. Prior to 2008, much of the South – but not Arkansas – had switched from the Democrats to the Republicans. Since the election of President Obama, Arkansas has undergone a historic shift toward the GOP. When Obama was elected, the state’s congressional delegation was 5-1 Democrat. Now, it’s 5-1 Republican. Now-Sen. John Boozman defeated then-Sen. Blanche Lincoln by 21 points in 2010. The state Legislature has undergone a similar shift from Democratic domination to Republican leadership. In the 24 state Senate elections where the two parties have squared off since Obama was elected, the Republicans have won 19.

History also favors Cotton. Off-year elections often are unkind to members of the president’s party. Voters who oppose a sitting president are more motivated to vote than those who support him. In the 2006 elections during the second term of President George W. Bush’s administration, the Democratic caucus in the U.S. Senate gained six seats from 45 to 51 – the same number that Republicans need this year to take the Senate. In 1994 (after the Clintons also had tried to pass a health care plan), Republicans gained nine Senate seats.

Finally, there’s the year of the election. Under President Obama, two electorates have developed – a younger, more diverse one that votes only in presidential election years and leans Democratic, and an older, more conservative one that also votes in the other elections and gives Republicans an advantage. If Pryor would have faced re-election in 2016, he would be dealing with more favorable demographics. At the very least, President Obama would be less of an issue on his way out of the White House.

Of course, that would have meant Pryor would have had to run in 2010, when Lincoln lost by 21 points after Obamacare had passed. In 2008, Pryor didn’t even have a Republican opponent.

The issue that hangs over all of this, of course, is Obamacare. Pryor, as you must know if you are reading this kind of column, voted for it. To his credit, he hasn’t pretended that he didn’t, though I don’t see how he could. Obamacare will remain deeply unpopular in Arkansas through November, even if they do eventually get that website fixed.

Meanwhile, Pryor’s other disadvantages remain – momentum, which can be altered, and history and the year of the election, which can’t.

NCAA ignoring problem led to this ‘solution’

April 6, 2014 |  by  |  Uncategorized  |  2 Comments  |  Share

The thing about ignoring a problem is that someone else might solve it for you, and you might not like that solution. Such is the case with a recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that NCAA football players at Northwestern University are college employees and can form a union.

That solution addresses two kinds of problems, both of which the NCAA should have long ago solved. One kind of problem is that being a college football player is a full-time job, but players don’t receive adequate compensation, while coaches, athletic directors and the NCAA are raking in the dough. Yes, a player may receive a scholarship that might lead to a job someday. Meanwhile, Razorbacks head coach Bret Bielema made $3.2 million last year. A big issue for Northwestern players is receiving medical care after graduation for injuries suffered on the field. As it stands now, they’re cut off.

Another way of looking at the problem is this: The people making all the money and making all the decisions are the ones who only think they have all the power. The ones who actually have a lot of power – the players that fans are paying to see – aren’t receiving adequate and immediate compensation. In a free market economy, that imbalance probably can’t last forever.

Seth Armbrust, who played for the Razorbacks his sophomore, junior and senior seasons, didn’t even receive a scholarship except during his junior year.

Armbrust was not a star, but he did contribute as a special teams captain and as a reserve at cornerback and safety. During his college career, he spent eight-10 hours a day on football-related activities. The scholarships he received his junior year barely covered living expenses, so he supplemented his income with a job as a lifeguard. That’s in addition to going to class. As for his fellow scholarship recipients, some did not always budget their money correctly. On the other hand, some sent part of their checks home, where the money was needed more.

“Our scholarship is literally the minimum. … Once you pay your rent and you pay your bills, there’s not a whole lot left over,” he said.

Armbrust said he and the rest of the players played for the love of the game and did not resent the way they were treated, but he couldn’t help but notice that the money did not trickle his way. He was asked to sit at luncheons with athletics boosters whose gifts were funding his backups’ scholarships. He didn’t get a cut of the sales of programs with his likeness on them. Stars like quarterbacks Ryan Mallett and Tyler Wilson received nothing for sales of jerseys with their names on them.

This is not a new issue. In fact, it’s been gaining traction. Former NCAA players have sued over video games featuring their likenesses. The NCAA responded by ending its relationship with the manufacturer. There was a big to-do over Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel making money signing autographs. He didn’t even own the rights to his name.

The ruling only applies to private schools like Northwestern, not to public universities like the University of Arkansas, and it’s being appealed. But the door has been opened for other enforcement actions as well as many other complications. For example, can players strike? If playing football is their job and their scholarships are their salary, do they have to pay taxes?

The whole issue could have been solved from the outset had the big-business NCAA been more flexible. Armbrust said an extra $500 to $1,000 a month would have meant a lot to the players. Continuing health care would have helped, too. “At the end of the day, we’re getting to do what we love to do, and that was go out and play football,” he said.

Young men like that can be assuaged pretty easily – a little extra money to pay for laundry and dates, and a guarantee that if they still need ankle surgery after they graduate, the university will help them out.

College football execs haven’t been willing to do that. Instead, they insisted that players remain amateurs while everyone else got paid. So someone else came up with a solution, with its own set of problems.

“Evil” in American politics

April 3, 2014 |  by  |  Elections, Politics  |  5 Comments  |  Share

These days, it’s not enough to say your political opponent is wrong. You have to say he or she has bad intentions. This “the opposition is evil” narrative is effective for winning elections but not helpful for running a democracy. Here are three reasons why.

First, dismissing opponents as evil or ill-intentioned means we don’t have to seriously consider where they might be right and where we might be wrong – and we all have to be wrong about something, right? Democracy’s strength is based on the so-called “wisdom of the crowds” – that a diverse group of people will, collectively, come up with a better answer for societal problems than a monolithic group, even of experts. If the “government is always bad” crowd always got its way, we would never have had Social Security or the legal protections provided to minorities after the civil rights movement. If the “government can solve our problems” crowd got its way too often, the government would never stop growing.

Second, dismissing opponents as evil or ill-intentioned means we don’t have to consider the root causes of problems. Just vanquish the villains, and everything will be OK – just like on TV. Well, not exactly. The past 13 years have been one of the most fiscally irresponsible eras in American history. We’ve had government by Republicans, government by Democrats, and divided government. The results have been largely the same – big spending and more debt.

Getting rid of President Obama won’t change that any more than getting rid of President Bush did. They are merely symptoms of a larger disease that has infected the entire society: We demand more government than we are willing to pay for. Until Americans confront their own responsibilities and stop blaming one side or the other, that disease will fester.

Third, dismissing opponents as evil or ill-intentioned means we don’t give anyone else a chance. The two major parties have manipulated Americans into believing that the other side is so bad that we have no choice but to vote against them. It’s called the “spoiler effect.” We must vote for the Republican or Democrat we hate the least lest we inadvertently contribute to the election of the other party – even though there’s a third candidate we actually prefer.

The result is that the two parties have assured their own continued elections even as more Americans express their disgust with them and consider themselves independent. No one outside the two major parties can be competitive – much less have their ideas heard.

It’s really a neat deal for the two major parties. They trade seats every few years, but ultimately they stay in power.

And that simply contributes to the cycle – the two parties have less reason to consider where they might be wrong, and they don’t have to consider the root causes of problems. Why would they? They keep winning.

Potential reforms would improve the system. Instant runoff voting, for example, allows voters to rank the candidates from most agreeable to least – ideally, minimizing the spoiler effect. Australia does that in its House of Representatives.

Ultimately, though, no reforms can overcome a citizenry that allows itself to be manipulated. We get the government we deserve, and if we allow either of the two parties to convince us to vote for them merely because the other side is evil, then we’ll reap the results of our laziness. For the past 13 years, those results have been debt, war, a stagnant economy and bailouts without responsibility – regardless of who’s been in power.

Some people are evil, but not many. Some people are wrong a lot of the time, but few people are wrong all of the time. Nobody is right all the time.

But not seriously confronting our problems is always wrong. Not necessarily evil, but definitely wrong.

Hillary Clinton.

April 1, 2014 |  by  |  Elections, Politics  |  No Comments  |  Share

The thing that’s so difficult about writing a column – about communication in general – is that no matter what words one uses, others will interpret them through their own experiences and emotions. What I write or say is of far less consequence than what you say to yourself in response. As evidence, I present the following sentence.

Hillary Clinton.

If you are over 30 years old, your opinion about those words probably is set in cement. It wouldn’t have mattered if I had asked “Hillary Clinton?” or exclaimed “Hillary Clinton!”

Not that it will make much of a difference, but here’s my opinion about her. Politically, I think she’s more liberal than she presents herself but not as liberal as she’s painted to be. Personally, she has her good points and bad points like all of us, and that’s enough said about that. I do not think she is evil or scary, but I do not intend to vote for her if she runs for president.

That said, a guy who actually changed his mind about her spoke at the Clinton School of Public Service in Little Rock Tuesday. David Brock said that, as a young man, he was part of the “vast right wing conspiracy.” Employed by a conservative-leaning magazine, he was the first journalist to print the name “Paula Jones.” He now says he wrote inaccurately about the Clintons. Over the course of his reporting career, he had a change of heart, apologized, and became their passionate defender.

He also became an opponent of the conservative media. On Tuesday he called Fox News “Orwellian,” which is a ridiculous adjective. How about just “biased”?

Your opinion about Fox News in particular and the media in general is probably set in cement, too, but I’ll share mine. Of course, most members of the mainstream media have been liberal, and their reporting has reflected that bias – purposely at times, unconsciously at others. There have been good and bad reporters, but there won’t be any unbiased ones unless human nature somehow changes. It would have been good had more moderates and conservatives become regular reporters to create more balance.

That didn’t happen. Instead, more and more Americans are getting their news from well-organized message machines that reinforce what we already believe rather than present us with challenging information. As with David Brock, Hillary Clinton is either wrong all the time, or she’s right all the time.

Brock also said that, if Clinton runs, she will be the most thoroughly examined candidate in history.

That’s true, and it will continue. People complain about “Clinton fatigue,” but that family is a story, and the media will continue to report on it.

Meanwhile, Republican political operatives already are doing what political operatives on both sides always do: Attack and destroy. That’s what they are paid to do. They don’t know how to do anything else.

They might personally discourage Clinton, who’s 66, from entering the race. That’s part of their goal.

But if she does run, the Republicans will lose yet another presidential election – they’ve lost the popular vote in five of the last six – unless their candidate also presents a positive vision for America. The party can’t just rely on a billion dollars in negative ads and dozens of congressional hearings about Benghazi. Those efforts will reinforce the GOP’s image, particularly among women, as the “party of no,” but they won’t move the needle much on a Clinton candidacy.

After all, if you don’t already have an opinion about her, you’re probably not a registered voter. She’s Hillary Clinton.

Rise of the whippersnappers

March 27, 2014 |  by  |  Legislature, State government  |  No Comments  |  Share

Maybe it’s a coincidence, and perhaps it doesn’t matter, but it’s hard not to notice how many leaders in the Arkansas Legislature are in their 30s.

The House last week elected Rep. Jeremy Gilliam, R-Judsonia, 37, as its presumed incoming speaker. He will replace Rep. Davy Carter, R-Cabot, who is about to turn 39.

On the Senate side, the incoming president pro tem, Sen. Jonathan Dismang, R-Beebe, is 34. He will replace Sen. Michael Lamoureux, R-Russellville, 37.

Dismang rose to prominence as an architect of the Medicaid private option, one of Arkansas’ most significant and controversial pieces of legislation in a long time. Other legislative architects were Sen. David Sanders, R-Little Rock, 37, and Rep. John Burris, R-Harrison, 28. Meanwhile, House Democrats are led by Rep. Greg Leding, D-Fayetteville, who is 35.

Why is this happening? In interviews, Gov. Mike Beebe, first elected to the Legislature at the age of 36, and legislators credited term limits for opening up leadership positions to younger people. In Beebe’s day, the Legislature was controlled by a few old-guard legislators who had been there forever. Younger members had to wait their turn.

Could there be other factors in the rise of these whippersnappers? Maybe 30-somethings can thrive in a job that Leding told me “is absolutely exhausting, physically mentally.” Perhaps a young and idealistic legislator is more likely to create and pass an out-of-the-box idea like the private option, and not be discouraged because things haven’t been done that way before. Maybe young people better understand social media and other aspects of contemporary politics. Maybe these legislators entered office at about the same time and formed alliances with people their own age. Dismang said younger legislators may have an extra motivation to excel. After all, when he’s carrying out his duties, he’s leaving behind his wife and young children. “If I’m going to be in Little Rock working, I’m going to make the most of that,” he said.

All of that would imply this is a trend, but Beebe rejects that. He said the high number of young legislators is an “anomaly,” that there just happens to be many exceptional young legislators at the moment, and term limits have allowed them to shine.

“Whether you’re an older guy or a younger guy, you’re on equal footing, and the talent is going to be what ends up creating the leadership, not the experience, because nobody’s got any experience,” he said.

He believes term limits eventually will lower the number of 30-something legislators because few in that age bracket will want to start political careers that will end so quickly. He thinks it will be more of an activity for retirees.

Lamoureux said that simple geography played a part in his selection as Senate president pro tem. As a resident of Russellville, he can drive back and forth from the Capitol more easily than legislators who might live three hours from Little Rock. He minimized the power of his office, explaining, “They may let us have those positions, but by no stretch of the imagination are we barking out orders.”

Nobody with whom I spoke believes an age of 30-something domination is upon us, nor should it be. A diversity of life experiences is the goal.

“I guess I haven’t thought about it all that much,” Lamoureux said. “I go back to, when we were making decisions, who was in my office? It was really just a wide range of people.”

Maybe so, but they were in his office.

Medical weed’s November fate still hazy

March 23, 2014 |  by  |  Elections, Politics, State government  |  No Comments  |  Share

Medical marijuana is legal in 20 states plus Washington, D.C. Whether or not it becomes legal in Arkansas this year depends on if it makes the ballot and who shows up at the polls.

Two competing proposals have been certified by Arkansas Attorney General Dustin McDaniel. One group of supporters is actively collecting signatures, while the other is trying to raise money.

Melissa Fults, campaign director of Arkansans for Compassionate Care, said 464 volunteers have collected about 10,000 signatures and will become more active now that the weather is prettier. They must collect 62,507 signatures – eight percent of voters in the last gubernatorial election – by July 7. That’s a lot, in a short amount of time.

The other proposal, submitted by Arkansans for Responsible Medicine, will rely on paid canvassers if it can raise the money, said organizer David Couch.

The groups are trying to build on the momentum from 2012, when the Arkansas Medical Marijuana Act almost passed with 48.56 percent of the vote and 507,757 Arkansans saying yes.

Still, this a nonpresidential election, which means the electorate will be smaller, older, more settled and more conservative – as opposed to 2012, when lots more young people voted in the big election. Couch said the thinking among many advocates is that it’s better to hold your fire – and save your money – until you have the best chance to win. That would be 2016.

Fults disagrees. The national mood seems to be shifting in favor of the idea. It’s hard to ignore those cancer patients asserting how marijuana helps them tolerate their disease. People, especially older ones, seem less hesitant when signing petitions than they did before, she said. She also thinks a competitive governor’s race this year will drive up turnout.

Fults, a 59-year-old dairy goat farmer from outside Little Rock, became involved in the cause after a family member was injured in a debilitating accident. She said the opiates he was taking were turning him into a “zombie” and literally were killing him. Marijuana, taken in pill form, has allowed him to live a normal life.

You can argue that she’s wrong about the policy. You can’t tell her she’s wrong about her family member.

History shows that medical marijuana can pass in a nonpresidential election. According to the website ProCon.org, of the 11 states that have legalized medical marijuana through a ballot initiative instead of a legislative act, five originally did so in nonpresidential years. Four of those, however, did so in the 1990s.

Even if Arkansans vote to legalize, there remains the thorny issue that, under federal law, possession of any amount of marijuana for any reason is a misdemeanor offense punishable by up to a year in prison. Even if medical marijuana is legal in Arkansas, it’s still illegal in America.

This is working in states that have legalized partly because the Obama administration, as it has a habit of doing, is selectively enforcing the law, which is not the way the system is supposed to work. Instead, Congress should pass a bill letting states decide for themselves if they will legalize medical marijuana. Then the president should sign the bill into law. Then Arkansas should legalize marijuana for medical purposes.

That would require Congress and the president to resolve a difficult issue in a statesmanlike way that increases freedom and reduces the federal government’s power.

Recent history would suggest that, if you believe that’s going to happen any time soon, you must be smoking something.

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