Legislature nears the finish line, and then …

LegislatureBy Steve Brawner, © 2019 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

The legislative session at the Arkansas Capitol heads for the finish line. What’s left? Mostly spending your tax dollars and finalizing the constitutional amendments you’ll consider in 2020.

In the next few weeks, lawmakers will divvy up state funding through the Revenue Stabilization Act. First passed in 1945, it prioritizes spending. Higher priority areas are guaranteed to be funded while lower priorities get money if it’s available.

The RSA is a big reason the state doesn’t run budget deficits, though it does incur debt in other ways, such as retirement programs and bond issues. It would be nice if the federal government had a similar mechanism, but alas.

Since 2013, one state agency has dominated the process: the Division of Medical Services, which administers Arkansas Works. That’s the state program that purchases private health insurance for lower-income Arkansans. Continue reading Legislature nears the finish line, and then …

Democrats in the sandbox with the big kids

LegislatureBy Steve Brawner, © 2019 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

What’s it like to be a Democrat in the Arkansas Legislature, when the other side outnumbers you three to one? Basically, you can play in the sandbox, and sometimes the big kids will let you help build the castle – especially when they need one of your shovels. But you’re still not one of the big kids.

In other words, your participation is real but limited. Here are a few recent examples, working our way back in time.

– On Thursday, March 14, Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, announced he was filing Senate Bill 571, which would cut taxes for lower- and middle-income Arkansans while raising cigarette and e-cigarette taxes. He did this in a crowded conference room with both Democrats and Republicans standing behind him. In fact, the way it worked out in the people-shuffling, the Democrats were standing closest to him. Hendren is the kind of lawmaker who reaches across the aisle anyway, but he’ll particularly need Democrats’ support to pass this bill. Continue reading Democrats in the sandbox with the big kids

Nicotine is cool again. Now what?

Jim Hendren, tobacco tax
Sen. Jim Hendren is sponsor of Senate Bill 571.

By Steve Brawner, © 2019 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Remember how we all woke up and realized the country faces an opioid crisis? Another health crisis is brewing: the skyrocketing use of e-cigarettes by young people. For the next few weeks, the question will be, what should Arkansas do about it?

First, the crisis.

For decades, society has successfully reduced tobacco use. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said last year that 14 percent of American adults smoked cigarettes, down from 42.4 percent in 1965. According to the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, only 7.6 percent of high school students nationwide smoke. In Arkansas, it’s 13.7 percent.

Then these vaping products – which contain nicotine and other harmful chemicals – were introduced. They’re new and sleek and have fruity flavors, and a lot of kids are using them. More than 3.6 million middle and high school students used e-cigarettes in the past 30 days last year, according to the CDC and the Food and Drug Administration. About 1.5 million more American young people used e-cigarettes in 2018 than in 2017. Continue reading Nicotine is cool again. Now what?

A Facebook star and a star on the flag

LegislatureBy Steve Brawner, © 2019 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Race was the issue that made the most news at the Capitol this past week. And it will make more news with another attempt to change a star on the Arkansas flag that commemorates the Confederacy and was placed there in 1923 and 1924 through bills sponsored by a Ku Klux Klan member.

The big news this past week was an impassioned speech by Sen. Stephanie Flowers, D-Pine Bluff, opposing a proposed “stand your ground” bill in committee. The bill would have changed the state’s current statute, which says a person may use deadly force if he or she can’t retreat safely.

When members of the committee were voting to limit debate, Flowers, its only African-American, delivered a stemwinder of a speech, telling them their son doesn’t “walk the same path as yours do.” Her frustration boiled over with those “d—- guns” – her sister was killed in 1969 – and with a pro-gun Legislature where she has had limited influence. She told the sponsor, Sen. Bob Ballinger, R-Berryville, who’s kind of a big white man from Northwest Arkansas, that just as he probably feels threatened by her, she feels threatened by him. There was a lot of emotion and some bad words. The chairman, Sen. Alan Clark, R-Lonsdale, quietly asked her to “stop the profanity,” but the last two words were obscured. One widely viewed online video said a “white lawmaker” was “trying to silence her.”

Two things happened as a result of that committee meeting. Continue reading A Facebook star and a star on the flag