Hutchinson has rookie’s enthusiasm – but not about highways

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

Asa for web

Being governor is not a job where practice makes perfect. In fact, in many ways, a governor is at his or her best as a beginner.

A new governor is fresh off the victory speech and is running off the adrenaline from the transition to power. He has a new title that carries with it an air of authority. He has ideas he can’t wait to implement. He hasn’t grown cynical from lost battles or grown paranoid from all the criticism. He’s younger than he’ll ever be again.

Circumstances can serve to magnify those early advantages. Gov. Asa Hutchinson came into office as the first Republican governor with a Republican Legislature since shortly after the Civil War. His predecessor, Gov. Mike Beebe, entered office after a landslide victory (over Hutchinson). Beebe’s predecessor, Gov. Mike Huckabee, became governor after demonstrating firm leadership amidst Gov. Jim Guy Tucker’s last-minute indecision about resigning.

Some of Huckabee’s and Beebe’s most notable policy accomplishments came early in their administrations. For Huckabee, it was ARKids First and the conservation tax. In his first session, Beebe and the Legislature increased school funding and cut the grocery tax in half.

They both were fine governors, but as would be the case with anyone, we’re better off that the Arkansas Constitution ensures we get some fresh blood in there after a while.

A good example of this is prison reform. This was not a focus of Hutchinson’s during the campaign, but it has become one now, and it may be the issue that most defines him when it’s all said and done. The state’s prisons are currently so overcapacity that 2,500 inmates are being housed in county jails. However, the state can’t afford to keep building cells, and simply letting inmates out of jail isn’t the best solution because many have a drug or alcohol problem, and 43 percent return to prison soon after being released. The only long-term solution, Hutchinson said, is to change inmates’ behavior, so his prison reform plan would create transitional centers to help parolees re-enter society.

Hutchinson was his usual reserved self when announcing his plans, but there was a fire in his eyes that I suspect won’t quite be there seven years from now. Again, fresh blood is a good thing.

Which brings us to highways. Last Feb. 19, Scott Bennett, director of the Arkansas Highway and Transportation Department, testified before a House panel in favor of House Bill 1346 by Rep. Dan Douglas, R-Bentonville, which would dedicate for highways sales tax revenues from the purchases of new and used cars and car parts.

Bennett has given this presentation so many times that he probably could do it in his sleep. The state has $20.3 billion in highway needs over the next 10 years but only $3.6 billion in expected revenues. While construction costs are rising, the primary means of funding highways, federal and state motor fuels taxes, have not been increased for decades and are producing less revenue because cars are becoming more fuel efficient. Yes, Arkansas voters passed an interstate bond issue in 2011 and a half-cent sales tax for highways in 2012. Together, those will affect less than 4 percent of the state’s roadways.

Bennett has been in his position long enough that the fire in his eyes that day was accompanied by a hint of desperation and frustration in his voice. Two years ago, a similar bill started out with broad support, but it failed under opposition from competing interests who feared highways would take a bigger slice of their pie. Gov. Beebe was adamantly opposed, and it failed.

Douglas’ bill did pass out of the committee, but, near the end of the meeting, Hutchinson’s Department of Finance and Administration director, Larry Walther, testified against it, saying it would create holes in the state budget. That was an ominous sign for the bill’s supporters: It meant Hutchinson is opposed. Highways at this point are not his thing – not at the expense of other things, anyway. This week, Douglas announced that, because of the governor’s opposition, he was putting the bill on hold for a while.

The funding model for highways is not sustainable, at the state or national levels. Highways and bridges that aren’t properly maintained now will have to be replaced later, at much higher costs.

How soon the problem is addressed matters. A lot more gets done when there’s fresh blood in the Governor’s Mansion and the governor still has fire in his eyes.

Another state government mandate – this one in writing

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

This is the part of the legislative session where I look forward to lawmakers going home, because they do not always listen to me.

Last week, I asked them to approach their jobs with restraint after they voted to ban communities from passing anti-discrimination ordinances. That law was passed after Fayetteville enacted such an ordinance through its city council and then rescinded it by a vote of the people – an indication that democracy was working just fine there.

Then this past week, the Senate voted 30-1 to require all public school districts to teach cursive writing by the third grade. Some schools have stopped teaching this skill. Only Sen. Bruce Maloch, D-Magnolia, voted no. It passed in the House, 66-21.

It’s my experience as an observer that most state legislators are honorable, admirable and likable. Go to the State Capitol on any given day, and you may be encouraged by the civility and sobriety of most of what happens.

But legislators are people, and people tend to want to use power to make others see things their way. Legislators should beware of that temptation.

There is evidence that learning cursive writing may be beneficial for students. It may be good to write the entire word without lifting the pencil, and by learning both cursive and print, students learn to write the word in two different ways. A 2006 study by Dr. Virginia Berninger, a University of Washington psychologist, found that writing in cursive, writing in print, and keyboarding each activate different parts of young brains. Important historical documents were written in cursive or something like it. Someday, today’s kids may want to read their great-granddad’s letters home from the war.

Opponents, meanwhile, say it’s an antiquated and increasingly irrelevant skill in a digital age, and other skills are more important. When is the last time you wrote a capital “Q” in cursive?

But the question isn’t who’s right. The question is, who decides, after what process? Legislators, after debating the issue in a couple of committee meetings? Or local school educators, using their professional judgement while considering their communities’ unique situations?

Schools didn’t drop cursive writing because their teachers are lazy. They did it after weighing the benefits of teaching cursive against the realities that they have too much else to do, in large part because of No Child Left Behind, the Common Core, and other decisions by others, including the Arkansas Legislature. Teachers were not lined up outside the Capitol chanting for the right to teach cursive writing.

As is sometimes the case, there seems to have been very little thought given to this latest government mandate. The sponsor, Rep. Kim Hendren, R-Gravette, conceived of it because his granddaughter could not write in cursive. It was first debated in the House Education Committee on Feb. 10, where it was passed that day, and by Feb. 19 it was sent to the governor. It seemed like a good idea, and some legislators probably didn’t want to oppose a colleague whose vote they may need later.

Contrast this educational mandate with another one passed by the Legislature – Hutchinson’s requirement that all high schools teach a computer science class. Hutchinson spent a year talking about the issue on the campaign trail and made it the subject of his best commercial, the one with his granddaughter playing basketball. The public and professional educators had a chance to thoroughly vet the proposal. There was little opposition.

That’s the way to pass a mandate.

The opportunity to assert power should send chills up lawmakers’ spines. They should hesitate to do so, especially if they know little about a subject, and there are people who know more because of their education and experience, and those people make decisions at a local level, and those decision-makers are accountable to voters, as educators are through their locally elected school boards.

Notice I used the word “hesitate.” If local control were always the rule, it would have taken a lot longer to desegregate schools. Instead, legislators should take things issue by issue, and slow down. When asked to substitute their judgement for the judgements of others, they should be inclined to vote no unless given a really good reason to vote yes.

In other words, they should have left this one to the local schools.

Saving $100 and, hopefully, a few inmates

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

“Right now, as you know, if you leave prison, you get $100 and a bus ride, a bus ticket, or something of similar fashion,” Gov. Asa Hutchinson said Wednesday in announcing his prison reform plan. “That is really not going to help reduce repeat offenders from going back in.”

That wasn’t political exaggeration. A hundred dollars is really what a prisoner receives when he walks out of prison, plus a bus ticket if no one is there to give him a ride.

Forty-three percent of inmates who leave prison soon return, which, if you think about it, might be surprisingly low. If a person only knows two worlds – the one that led him to prison, and prison – where is he going to go with nothing but a hundred bucks in his pocket? Back to that first world, and then, often, back to the second.

We can’t afford this, Hutchinson said, and he’s right. There are now 18,000 inmates in Arkansas’ prison system, which is so overcapacity that the state has been forced to house 2,500 inmates in county jails. County officials are screaming because they have no space and therefore no “stick” to use with their own local offenders. Worse, the state does not fully reimburse them for their costs.

One possible solution is a new $100 million prison that would house 1,000 inmates. That still would leave a county jail backup of 1,500 inmates, making it the equivalent of poking an extra hole in a too-small belt and then gorging on a pizza buffet. The state released 10,000 inmates in 2014, Hutchinson said. If 43 percent of them return to prison, the state would have to find that many beds.

Short-term, Hutchinson proposes spending $50 million for enough prison space for 790 inmates, including leasing 288 beds from a county jail in Bowie County, Texas. In round numbers, that $50 million is about $63,000 per bed.

That’s to address the crisis, he said. As for the long-term overcrowding issues, Hutchinson proposes spending about $16 million on initiatives meant to change behavior and keep people out of prison. He wants to spend $7.5 million for additional parole and probation officers, and $2.8 million on alternative sentencing options such as drug courts, which have had some success in keeping people out of the penitentiary.

Finally, he wants to spend $5.5 million to create transitional re-entry centers for 500 inmates who are within six months of their parole eligibility – job training, that kind of thing. For those inmates, which represent a fraction of those let out of prison each year, it would offer a lot more than $100 and a bus ticket.

How to pay for all this? Most initially will come from $31 million from the Arkansas Insurance Department’s reserve fund, and then starting in two years it will have to come from the general revenue budget.

All of this was to be included in one bill to be filed Thursday by Hutchinson’s nephew, Sen. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Benton. It will pass, because everything Gov. Hutchinson has proposed has passed or is passing – his tax cut, his private option plan, the requirement that high schools teach computer science. The state’s first Republican governor with a Republican Legislature in 150 years is enjoying quite a honeymoon.

Hutchinson was asked about another long-term solution – changing the state’s sentencing structure. He said his proposals are meant to address a crisis, and that sentencing reforms will involve a larger discussion with a lot of input from the prosecutors.

But it must be discussed. Dina Tyler, who was the spokesperson for the Department of Correction and now speaks for Arkansas Community Correction (parole, probation, etc.), said after the press conference that it’s not true that prisons are full of inmates busted for simple drug possession. These are people who have really messed up. However, many prisoners aren’t hardened criminals, but instead they’re OK people who just made bad choices. It’s time to stick some ankle bracelets on some of them so they can have jobs, get an education, and actually be corrected instead of teaching them how to become real criminals in prison.

They might have a chance to make something of themselves that way, and it would save Arkansas taxpayers at least a hundred bucks and a bus ticket – plus, in the future, maybe $100 million.

Captain Legislature didn’t save the day in Fayetteville

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

Arkansas is now a Republican state, and there is a strain in Republicanism (and in the Democratic Party, and in human nature in general) that seeks to assert power. It has already happened once in a big way this legislative session. Legislators should resist the temptation to do it again.

I’m referring to Senate Bill 202, which makes it illegal for local communities to create their own classes of citizens protected from discrimination. It passed easily in both houses. Gov. Asa Hutchinson opposed the bill because it usurps local control but, unwilling to fight this battle and issue a probably useless veto, he is letting it become law without his signature.

The new law comes in the wake of a local ordinance passed by the Fayetteville City Council last year that would have banned discrimination in the workplace against various groups – but really, it was all about gay rights. Business and religious groups collected enough signatures for a popular vote to overturn the measure. Voters narrowly overturned it. The Eureka Springs City Council recently passed its own now apparently meaningless anti-discrimination ordinance.

The sponsors of the bill said they did not want businesses to have to deal with varying rules city by city – which, by the way, happens all the time. Every locality has its own rules about a lot of things. Arkansas is a collection of wet and dry counties, gambling islands, speed traps, etc.

Senate Bill 202 ultimately isn’t about gay rights. It’s about how decisions are made in a democracy, which is why this was a bad bill. Each situation is different, but the principle should be that, whenever possible, decisions should be made at the level of government that is closest to the people. We regular folks have less say about what happens in the State Capitol than we do in our hometowns, and we have virtually no influence over what happens in Washington, D.C.

It’s often said that states are the laboratories of democracy, where ideas can be tried in one place and then adopted, improved or discarded elsewhere. It is good thing that California can pass all kinds of regulations and that Texas can be halfway its own country and that Arkansas can create the Medicaid private option and, then, if it chooses, get rid of it. We learn from each other’s successes and mistakes.

The same is true for local communities. What would have happened had state government minded its own business on this particular issue? Maybe there would have been a flood of discrimination lawsuits in Fayetteville that would have shut down businesses and put people out of work. Or, maybe Fortune 500 companies would have been attracted to the community because they saw it as forward-thinking. Either way, Fayetteville would have determined its next course of action, and other communities could have learned lessons and applied them to their own decision-making processes in their own city halls.

Fayetteville did not need to be rescued by Captain Legislature. The elected City Council openly passed an ordinance. Some people didn’t like the ordinance and collected signatures to overturn it. The citizens of Fayetteville debated the issue publicly and privately. The voters had their say, and majority will prevailed. Until legislators stepped in, maybe the City Council could have considered other ways of meeting the ordinance’s goals without possibly stifling commerce and infringing on religious beliefs. Or maybe in the next election, the people would have voted everybody out and been done with it.

In other words, real democracy was happening there. I’m having trouble seeing what state legislators meeting three hours away in Little Rock needed to fix.

It’s not about whether terrorists should rot

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

“In my opinion the only problem with Guantanamo Bay is there are too many empty beds and cells there right now. We should be sending more terrorists there for further interrogation to keep this country safe. As far as I’m concerned every last one of them can rot in hell, but as long as they don’t do that then they can rot in Guantanamo Bay.”

That’s what U.S. Sen. Tom Cotton said Feb. 5 during a hearing of the Senate Armed Forces Committee. He got a lot of attention because of that.

Let’s start by pointing out that Cotton, a decorated war veteran who volunteered for duty, has a perspective that those like me who stayed safely at home cannot have.

That said, the issue is not if confirmed terrorists should rot, but where detainees should be held. And it should not be in the government’s little corner of Castro’s island.

According to the New York Times, 780 detainees have been sent to the Guantanamo Bay prison since it opened in 2002. Of those, 122 are still there, 649 have been transferred, and nine have died on the island.

Most of those remaining probably are terrorists, but how do we know? Because the government has told us they are? That’s not the way America is supposed to work.

In America, we’re supposed to be skeptical of the government, but that’s hard to put into practice at Guantanamo Bay because it lacks some of the checks on the government’s power that exist elsewhere – juries, journalists, churches, human rights activists, etc. There has been little that anyone outside of the government could do when the detainees have been sent there – or when they have been sent elsewhere. If President Obama says it’s worth the risk to send them back home, well, should we trust that’s so?

The nation’s founding document, the Declaration of Independence, states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”

Did you catch that? Our rights aren’t granted by the government, and we don’t have rights because we are Americans. We have rights because we were created. All men are created.

We have to respect that. American citizens can’t just blindly trust the government when it says that every detainee is a terrorist, and it can do with them as it wishes for decades without any oversight by anyone else. If we accept that, then we could be next.

We’ve seen the best of America since the attacks of Sept. 11, including acts of heroism and sacrifice such as those performed by Cotton.

But those attacks also have brought out the less-than-best of America. Osama bin Laden not only succeeded in killing 3,000 people, but he also convinced us to change our way of life and sometimes to ignore our founding principles, all based on fear.

Guantanamo Bay has hurt the country’s standing in the world, which is why the president called it “a propaganda tool for our enemies and a distraction for our allies.” And by “president,” I mean President George W. Bush, who wrote that comment in his autobiography. He wanted to close the prison and send many of the detainees back to their own countries. “Cold-blooded killers,” on the other hand, should be tried in U.S. courts, he said while in office.

Yes, in U.S. courts, or at least in some kind of legitimate process allowing Americans to keep an eye on the government. First, because it needs to be determined one-by-one that the accused actually are cold-blooded killers. And second, because the nation’s principles include not only the pursuit of happiness but also the pursuit of justice. All men are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights, and all men should face the consequences of their actions.

Governor, enjoy this while it lasts

Asa for web

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

We are witnessing the smoothest legislative session in recent memory, thanks to its placement on history’s timeline and the political skills of the state’s leadership, particularly Gov. Asa Hutchinson. He should enjoy this while it lasts.

I say it’s the smoothest because of what it could have been. Going into the session, the debate over the private option threatened to dominate the session. The program, which uses federal Medicaid dollars to purchase private insurance for 200,000 lower-income Arkansans, barely passed in 2013 and barely was reauthorized in 2014. A number of freshman legislators had campaigned promising to end it, but supporters weren’t about to let it die, either. In presenting to the House one of the bills that will keep it afloat for two years, Rep. Kelley Linck, R-Flippin, said it has been perhaps the state’s most debated issue since secession. That was laying it on a little thick, but not that much.

Two things happened, the most important being that for the first time since shortly after the Civil War, Republicans control the Legislature and the governor’s office, and they do not want to give their party’s leader a hard time. One of the private option’s most influential opponents, Senate Majority Leader Jim Hendren, R-Sulphur Springs, is Hutchinson’s nephew and wanted to find a way forward. It’s not Mike Ross’ fault, but if a Democratic governor had been elected with a Republican Legislature, the debate over the private option would be deadlocked at this point.

The other thing that happened was that Hutchinson smartly took the issue off the table by proposing to fund it for two years while a task force studies overall health care reform, including changing the private option into something else. The proposal, sponsored by Hendren, gave opponents a reason to vote yes in hopes of ending the program at the end of 2016. Legislative Democrats knew there is a time to fight and a time to make peace, and this was not the time to fight. It not only passed, but it passed easily.

The rest of Hutchinson’s agenda is sailing through the Legislature. He’s already signed into law the middle class tax cut that was the centerpiece of his campaign. His budget has been meeting little resistance. His bill to require all high schools to offer computer science will have no problem passing.

He should not get used to this. Some of the legislators who campaigned against the private option but then voted for Hutchinson’s proposal could face primary opponents in the next election because they didn’t vote “no” enough. The task force will recommend significant changes and will no doubt want to change the private option’s name, but it won’t simply recommend ending it. That means the debate we’ve had the past three sessions will resurface in 2017, if it doesn’t do so earlier. The 2017 legislative session will not be the first in 150 years that Republicans control both the Legislature and the governor’s office. By then, it will be the norm. Factions will develop, and dissidents will be emboldened.

In other words, Republicans soon will start looking a lot like Democrats always looked when they were the undisputed majority party.

Earlier in his career, Hutchinson was a Republican candidate when being a Republican candidate wasn’t cool. Now, he’s a Republican governor when being a Republican governor may not again be this easy.

That’s not to discredit his accomplishments, because he ran a great campaign, transitioned well, and has performed effectively during his first month in office. His leadership has been thoughtful, measured and fair. A lesser governor with fewer political skills would not be this successful, regardless of what historical winds were at his or her back.

He’ll need those skills in the future when those winds start to swirl. They always do.

Welcome to Greenbrier High U

Greenbrier students Caroline Harrod, Will Ratliff and Kourtni Bowen study simple harmonic motion using a spring/mass system and Vernier motion sensors in an AP physics class.

Greenbrier students Caroline Harrod, Will Ratliff and Kourtni Bowen study simple harmonic motion using a spring/mass system and Vernier motion sensors in an AP Physics I class.

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

Faulkner County is the home of three degree-granting educational institutions – the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College, and Central Baptist College. Soon there will be a fourth – Greenbrier High School.

Twenty minutes north of Conway, the district is waiting final accreditation – and there’s no reason to believe it won’t be granted – from the Higher Learning Commission in Chicago. If that happens before the end of the school year, 8-10 students will graduate high school with a two-year associate’s degree from the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.

Students already can earn college credit by taking concurrent and Advanced Placement courses – in other words, college English that counts as a high school English class. The cost for them and their families? Fifty dollars per class to give them “a little bit of skin in the game,” said Scott Spainour, the district’s superintendent, unless they can’t afford it, in which case it’s free. Lakeside High School in Garland County is partnering with National Park Community College to offer a similar opportunity.

Spainhour hopes the idea spreads beyond these two school districts. Arkansas ranks 49th in the country, above only West Virginia, in its percentage of adults above age 25 with a bachelor’s degree. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, 18.9 percent of Arkansans have reached that level of attainment.

Of course, having a four-year college degree isn’t necessary to be successful in life or to have a good-paying job – a fact that can be covered in another column. But, on average, you’re better off with more education than you are with less. The Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco reported last year that average college graduates earn $830,800 more over their lifetimes than high school graduates. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the unemployment rate in 2013 was 7.5 percent for Americans with a high school diploma but 5.4 percent for those with an associate’s degree and 4 percent for those with a bachelor’s degree.

College, obviously, is expensive, even with all the scholarships available. Last year, Greenbrier graduates saved almost $700,000 in college tuition costs because they had already taken those courses in high school.

But cost alone is not the only barrier to college completion. Many students graduate high school unprepared academically, and only one in 10 students requiring remediation will graduate with a four-year degree, according to “Four-Year Myth,” a 2014 report by Complete College America. Meanwhile, a college education is a major disruption occurring in an unfamiliar environment during a transitory stage in life. According to Complete College America, only one advisor is available for every 400 students on a typical college campus. It’s no wonder the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center reported in 2014 that, during the last 20 years, 31 million college students have started school but not earned a degree.

Students in Greenbrier and Lakeside, in contrast, will earn their hours in a familiar, supportive home environment before they go to college. “Four-Year Myth” reported that 62 percent of associate’s degree seekers who earn 30 credits during their first year graduate, compared with 10 percent with less than 12 credits. Greenbrier and Lakeside students easily can reach that level, and none of them have to be remediated. With up to two years of rigorous instruction already under their belts, they’re more likely to complete a four-year degree rather than drop out. And even if they enter the workforce straight from high school, they will be more job-ready because of the classes they have taken.

Arkansas has taken a number of steps to increase students’ educational attainment, including state-sponsored gambling through the lottery.

But making college more affordable isn’t enough. It’s not a good strategy to send 18-year-olds to a sprawling, impersonal campus and expect most of them to be successful. Arkansas has 297 public high schools, including Greenbrier and Lakeside, where classroom teachers know their students’ names and care about their well-being. There’s no reason many students can’t graduate with their basics at age 18, ready for more. Community colleges and four-year schools then can serve as economic and academic engines, not remedial facilities.

If this spreads – and it will – students could go “off to college” each morning from their homes, where parents can guide them, without going into debt. Sure seems like a better way to me.

Voters should select, not elect, judges

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

The recent admission of bribery by former circuit judge Michael Maggio is an example of why Arkansas should consider changing the way it fills judicial offices – still relying on average citizens, but not by using elections.

Maggio pleaded guilty Jan. 9 to a felony bribery charge and now probably is on his way to prison. He had reduced a jury verdict against a nursing home operator from $5.2 million to $1 million two days after receiving large campaign donations from the operator.

Clear-cut justice-for-sale cases like this are relatively rare, so let’s not overreact. The corrupt official was caught, so you might say the system worked.

The problem, however, isn’t so much the obvious cases of bribery that can be prosecuted. The problem is when judges are merely influenced. Who donates to judicial campaigns? Often, those who have an interest in the outcomes of judicial decisions in general, such as attorneys and nursing home operators.

Elections of judges and justices has always been the least democratic of all ballot races. Candidates aren’t supposed to discuss how they would rule on specific cases because a judge should remain impartial until hearing the evidence. Meanwhile, they aren’t allowed to run under party labels, which at least would give voters a sense of where they stand. Many voters are just guessing.

In the future, the problem may go from voters having no information to them having a lot of bad information. More and more, the waves of campaign dollars swamping the executive and legislative branches is engulfing judicial races. In some other states, ads by outside groups in judicial races are as nasty as the ads for other offices. It hasn’t really come to Arkansas yet, but when it does, it will change not only judicial campaigns but also the administration of justice.

Solutions? One would be for the governor to appoint justices and judges the way the president does at the federal level, subject to legislative confirmation. That kind of power bestowed on the governor might make some people uncomfortable, but remember that he or she would be held accountable by the voters. A personal example: In 2000, enthusiastic about no candidate, I decided while driving to the polls to vote for soon-to-be President Bush solely because I preferred the justices he would appoint over Vice President Gore’s likely selections.

There is another model. In American democracy, where do registered voters best collect adequate information in a deliberative fashion before making an important decision? Juries.

So let’s have “voter duty” where 100 (or some other number of) Arkansas voters are randomly selected, summoned to a location, and given two days to interview judicial candidates and study their records. The names of the voters would be withheld so the candidates couldn’t influence them beforehand. At the end of two days, the voters would select the officeholders and go home.

We trust jury members to make life-or-death decisions in capital murder cases. Why not trust registered voters to appoint judges, which they do now anyway through the ballot box? Wouldn’t 100 informed and focused average Arkansans do a better job than 1 million scrolling through a list of names on the ballot that they recognize only through campaign attack ads? Best of all, judicial candidates could avoid having to raise money from shady donors who want something in return.

So let’s have a selection process instead of an election process for judicial offices. Elections are a means to an end, not the end itself. The ultimate goal is a just, democratic society ruled by the people. To keep justice from being for sale, 100 people might accomplish that goal better than 1 million of them.

Here’s some hopeful news on the national debt

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

If you’re a person who reads this newspaper section or clicks on this column online, you’re probably aware of the national debt and maybe a little concerned, but you’re not crazy about reading 700 words about it.

I get it. The numbers are mind-boggling and the terms confusing. Could there be any more boring words than “federal budget” and “fiscal responsibility”? We’ve been hearing about this bear in the woods for decades, but he never seems to attack.

But a couple of important things happened this past week – one hopeful, one less so – that are worth noting, so let’s cover them. Bear with me. We’re already at 110 words.

Let’s start with the less hopeful news. The Congressional Budget Office (CBO) released its 10-year projections Monday, which told us what we already knew, which is that the debt is growing unsustainably. Already $18 trillion ($57,000 for every American), the debt is expected to grow to $27.3 trillion by 2025.

Each year, the government runs a deficit that adds more to the debt –about $1 trillion every year during the recession, less so in recent years. In 2014, the government added “only” $483 billon to the debt, and the next three years will be about the same. But then the deficit starts rising. By 2025, the government again will spend more than $1 trillion over what it collects that year.

The CBO reports are typically a good information source, but they are based on some rosy scenarios – for example, that Congress won’t extend tax loopholes that it always extends. Forecasters assume there won’t be a terrorist attack, a natural disaster, or a significant economic downturn between now and 2025. On the other hand, unexpected good things can happen as well, such as the United States’ increasing energy independence.

The CBO projections stop at 2025. The picture does not improve moving forward as the baby boomers age and as spending increases for Social Security and Medicare.

And Medicare is where we get to the hopeful news. The federal Department of Health and Human Services announced this week that it will rely less on the “fee for service” model that has helped create runaway health care costs. Under that model, doctors and hospitals are paid for whatever services they render. They bill, and taxpayers pay, few questions asked, creating an incentive for unnecessary tests and procedures.

In the future, alternative models more often will pay medical providers based on quality of care. This is very hard to do, but it has been tested. Little Rock’s CHI-St. Vincent has been involved in a Medicare pilot program where the hospital and doctors were paid a set amount for joint replacement procedures, and it was up to them to control costs to make a profit. I know we don’t like to think of health care in terms of profits, but the alternative is a government bureaucracy. The result of the pilot program was that patient hospital readmissions after those procedures were reduced by two-thirds. When I asked the hospital’s reform-minded CEO, Peter Banko, why the changes had not been made earlier, he said, honestly defining the problem, “There was no financial incentive to.”

“Until you change how we’re being paid, you’re not going to see changes in the system,” he also said.

At the state level, Arkansas has been involved in a similar effort, the Arkansas Health Care Payment Improvement Initiative, which involves Medicaid, insurance companies and others. As part of the initiative, medical providers have financial incentives to keep costs at certain levels for particular “episodes of care.” One result, according to the Arkansas Center for Health Improvement, is that unnecessary antibiotic prescriptions for certain respiratory infections have decreased 17 percent. Doctors now have a financial incentive not to prescribe medicines that serve no purpose other than making patients feel like something is being done.

These are not perfect solutions. They’re very top-down in a health system that has been becoming increasingly top-down for decades.

But they are hopeful. It is impossible to balance the budget without controlling health care costs. If that could happen, it would be one of those unexpected good things that might mess up CBO’s numbers, in a good way.

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.