The chasm-bridger vs. the true believer

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

Which of these two paragraphs makes the most sense to you?

The problem with Congress is that nobody goes to Washington and fights for what’s right. America needs elected officials who will stand on principle. We got into this mess because too many politicians go along to get along.

The problem with Congress is that there aren’t enough members who’ll work with both parties. We can’t get out of this mess unless members of Congress will work with each other, compromise a little, and get something done for the American people

If you’re like me, you might think both paragraphs are true, even though it’s hard for one person to exhibit both qualities. Who do we want: Someone who’ll stand on principle, or someone who will work with others as part of a democratic government with diverse constituencies?

And that’s your Senate race.

Rep. Tom Cotton, the Republican, is paragraph 1. No one can question his willingness to stand on principle as a person or a policymaker. He voted against Hurricane Sandy relief because the package contained too much waste and not enough relief. The other members of Arkansas’ delegation decided they could live with the package’s flaws. He voted against the farm bill because he believes the government is spending too much on food stamps and because he believes food stamps and farm payments should be separate issues. But the reason they are paired is, to pass the bill, historically it’s been necessary to maintain a coalition of rural farm state congressmen and urban representatives with food stamp-receiving constituents. The rest of the state’s delegation voted yes.

Sen. Mark Pryor, the Democrat, is paragraph 2. He’s somewhat of a centrist in a party that has moved left while he represents a state that is voting to the right. He’s inclined to compromise, sometimes joining with other middle ground-seeking senators to try to bridge the chasm between the two sides. When the government shut down last year, he was one of 14 senators, Republican and Democrat, who produced a compromise that ended the impasse and reopened the government. But he’s not one who will lead the charge for a world-changing idea.

Seeing the glass as half empty in this race, either Arkansas’ next senator will stand for too much, or its next senator will not stand for enough. The glass-half-full side is, if there were no chasm-bridgers like Pryor in Congress, nothing would ever get done, and if there were no true believers like Cotton, nothing great would ever get done.

What works best in a democracy is “principled compromise” – the ability to stand on rock-solid principles and then work with others to enact polices that move the country in the best direction, often one small step at a time. Effective elected officials compromise not only because they must, but also because they see the value in another person’s perspective. For a senator to govern as if he cannot be wrong – that’s a dangerous quality to have. But we also know what happens when someone compromises too much. As country singer Aaron Tippin described it, “You’ve got to stand for something or you’ll fall for anything.”

Let’s not forget the two other candidates in the race. Libertarian Nathan LaFrance wants less government than Pryor or even Cotton. Green Party nominee Mark Swaney is generally for more government on issues such as health care and the environment. They’re both paragraph 1 candidates campaigning on principle.

The candidate who wins the election hopefully will practice principled compromise in the Senate over the next six years – standing for what’s right while working with others, and compromising on policies without compromising his values. That’s a difficult tightrope for any of the 100 senators to walk, which is why, these past few years, we haven’t seen enough of them even try.

Passing health care reform – and a kidney stone

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

It was Saturday morning, March 29, and the pain in my lower back was growing more intense. I knew what was happening. It was not my first kidney stone.

If you’ve ever had one, you know the drill: the writhing, the fruitless shifting of positions hoping to find relief, the heaving. When I could take the pain no more, I shakily told my wife to wake the kids and drive me to the emergency room. When we arrived, I begged the admittance clerk to hurry. I underwent a CT scan and was given drugs that, blessedly, took away most of the pain. Surgery removed the stone a week later.

I’m grateful for modern health care, but no consumer product is free. The total out-of-pocket cost for that episode so far is nearing $6,000, including a big hospital bill that recently arrived – six months after the surgery. I’m hoping there will be no more surprises. My insurance company was billed more than $12,000 for the surgery alone and paid about $10,000 of that.

Ask me about health care reform, and I’ll generally say the system doesn’t function enough like a free market. Patients don’t act like consumers, and medical providers don’t act like a business. We must encourage patients to be more price-conscious so they’ll shop around and refuse unnecessary care. That kind of behavior will force medical providers to become more efficient and cheaper.

That’s Steve the political philosopher talking, and I’m not saying it’s wrong. But what did Steve the kidney stone patient do? Certainly not call the various emergency rooms at 6 a.m. on a Saturday looking for the best combo deal. I went to the only one in my hometown. There I was at the provider’s mercy not only as a patient but also as a consumer. I would have bought whatever service the hospital was selling in order to take away that pain.

Over the course of a week, my kidney was scanned numerous times, including the day before the surgery and the day of. At the hospital, already wearing my gown, I finally asked if it was really necessary to do it again. I was told the doctor liked to see if the stone had moved overnight. What would you do – refuse the scan? Of course I did what the doctor, who is also the seller, told me to do. I had no buying power in that situation.

Health care reform – that’s a hard one. Try as one might, it doesn’t fit neatly into any political ideology, including my fuzzy one. The mandate by the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare) that all Americans must have insurance, which conservatives argue is an unconstitutional edict – it once was a conservative idea. A major issue in this year’s legislative races is the private option, which uses federal dollars to buy private insurance for poor people who make too much money for Medicaid. It was created by Republican legislators and Democrat Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration and now provides insurance to 200,000 people. Other Republicans say it’s just Obamacare by another name.

OK, it is more government, at least on the front end. But uninsured people generally wait until they are very sick to seek care, and then they go to the emergency room, and they can’t afford to pay for their care, so the rest of us pick up the tab. So what’s the easy answer on that one?

No matter how health care is reformed, there will be winners and losers. During Monday’s AETN debate, Sen. Mark Pryor described a church meeting with a diabetic constituent thanking him for voting for the Affordable Care Act. Because it made it illegal for insurance companies to reject his pre-existing condition, the diabetic has coverage for the first time in 15 years. On the other hand, Pryor’s opponent, Rep. Tom Cotton, had his own story: a dentist and his wife lost their insurance because it didn’t comply with all of the act’s mandates. Libertarian Nathan LaFrance said doctors are telling him their attention is now focused on entering computer codes instead of caring for patients.

Take the words “Obama” and “Obamacare” out of the picture. Whose story is more compelling? The diabetic’s, the dentist’s, or the doctors’?

Aren’t they all? Health care reform – that’s a hard one. I don’t know the right answer, but anyone who tells you there’s an easy one is probably wrong.

Is Asa the private option’s better option?

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

Want the private option to go away? Maybe you should root for the candidate for governor who seems most supportive of it. Want it to survive? Maybe you should root for the candidate who seems most on the fence.

Let’s review the backstory before explaining.

The private option came about because of two provisions in the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare. First, it required states to expand their Medicaid rolls to serve more poor people. Second, because it was doing that, it cut government reimbursements to medical providers for giving uncompensated care to people who don’t have insurance and don’t pay. The thinking was there would be less uncompensated care because more people would have Medicaid.

When the Supreme Court ruled Obamacare constitutional, it also said states didn’t have to expand Medicaid, and many Republican-led states did not. Arkansas legislators – Republicans, actually – along with Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration instead created the private option, which serves the same population by using government dollars to buy private insurance instead of enrolling them in Medicaid.

As a result, about 200,000 Arkansans are benefitting – most through the private option, and the rest because they were routed into Medicaid while trying to enroll in the private option. The federal government is paying for almost all of the private option now; the state will begin kicking in a small share in 2017, eventually paying 10 percent under the program’s current terms.

Supporters say it’s is a rational mechanism for funding health care for 200,000 people. We’ll end up paying for health care for them anyway – often in the emergency room if they don’t have insurance. Smaller hospitals have closed in states that turned down the money. The private option’s mechanisms encourage recipients to behave like health care consumers and be more picky and choosy with their decisions, in theory reducing the cost. So far, it seems to be doing much of what it was intended to do.

Opponents say it’s just Obamacare by another name, inevitably resulting in more government and more debt. Doing business with the federal government is a risky deal, they say. That 10 percent will amount to real money, and at this point, we don’t even know how much it will cost.

The funding mechanism must pass the Legislature with a three-fourths majority every year. Democrats are all for it; Republicans, who likely again will have majorities in both the House and the Senate next year, are split between “yeses,” “no’s,” and “heck no’s.” It barely passed earlier this year, and there will be even more legislative opponents after this year’s elections.

Which brings us to this year’s campaign for governor. Democrat Mike Ross is totally for it. Republican Asa Hutchinson, knowing his party is split, has hedged throughout the campaign. In Tuesday’s televised debate, he referred to its successes but says Arkansas must know the costs before deciding whether or how it should continue.

If he’s really against it, he’d say so.

Let’s not ignore the other candidates: Green Party nominee Joshua Drake supports the private option, while Libertarian Frank Gilbert is opposed.

When the Legislature convenes in January, the new governor will have an agenda (along with all 135 legislators), but everything will hinge on the private option. It’s that big and that controversial, and Hutchinson probably gives it a better chance of continuing in some form.

That’s because Hutchinson, the Republican, would have much more pull with the Republican “no’s” than Ross. (No one will flip the “heck no’s.”) Every legislator in Ross’ minority party is already for it. He could use his veto if the Legislature left out the private option, but the Legislature could override that with a simple majority – the same percentage that passed the bill in the first place.

So Ross perhaps would be more eager to fight for the private option, but Hutchinson, the outwardly more reluctant warrior, would have more weapons.

Hutchinson would have his own motivations for saving it. He has plans, including cutting taxes by $100 million during his first year in office – a difficult prospect anyway and an impossible one without the private option’s federal dollars. He does not want to spend his first term reneging on his campaign promise, plugging budget holes, and trying to save endangered hospitals.

The private option may survive, albeit with changes, regardless of who wins. It may die either way. But it probably has a better chance of surviving with help from the candidate for governor who won’t say he supports it.

Obama, Obama, Obama and Bloomberg

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

This being a nonpresidential election, President Obama is not on the ballot, but you wouldn’t know it from this year’s campaign.

Obama and his “job-killing agenda” apparently are running for U.S. Senate, along with former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Obama is running for Congress. He’s running for lieutenant governor. He’s probably running for your local offices too.

There’s a reason why Arkansas Republicans continue to tie Democrats to the unpopular president: It works politically. For decades, the state GOP scratched its head as Democrats continued to dominate Arkansas while much of the rest of the South became Republican. Then in 2010 Arkansans changed allegiances. President Obama and Obamacare were like a light switch that flipped the state from Democrat to Republican.

It’s fair game for Republicans to point out that President Obama is a Democrat in a state where Obama is unpopular. Democrats in Congress will certainly be more supportive of his policies than Republicans will. It’s a shorthand way to draw a distinction.

But we’ve heard Obama’s name an awful lot since 2008, and frankly, it’s becoming a little much. He’ll be out of office in two years. I mean, the lieutenant governor’s race? Really?

Perhaps the guilt-by-association campaign reached its height, or depth, with a National Rifle Association radio ad supporting Rep. Tom Cotton in his race against Sen. Mark Pryor. In the accusatory tone to which we’ve all grown sadly accustomed, a voice says Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, sleeps behind armed guards but wants to take away our guns, so vote for Cotton.

The ad is ridiculous on so many levels. While Bloomberg is an aggressive pro-gun control activist with a lot of money, he’s no longer an elected official, and when he was, it was in New York City. His main connection to Arkansas is a clumsy ad buy he made earlier this campaign cycle against Cotton’s opponent, Sen. Mark Pryor, because he thought PRYOR was too pro-gun. A conservative and pro-gun family member of mine was so insulted by the implication that we Arkies can’t tell Bloomberg from Pryor that he declared the other day that Cotton had lost his vote.

The modern campaign is a far cry from the Illinois Senate election of 1858, when Abraham Lincoln and Stephen Douglas faced off in a series of debates where one spoke for 60 minutes, the other spoke for 90 minutes, and the first spoke for 30 minutes. Surely with that much time at the podium, the two were forced to offer more than just denunciations of President Buchanan. Somehow, the voters in the audience were able to pay attention and grasp the issues despite not having grown up with broadband internet access – or maybe that was the reason they could.

Campaigns are supposed to be job interviews between employers (the voters) and potential employees (the candidates). If you were looking for someone to represent your company, would you hire him or her if they spent the entire interview criticizing the other prospect waiting on a metal folding chair in the hallway?

Voters, more so than candidates, are responsible for lifting the campaign’s tone. A prospective employee will do what is necessary to get the job, and if the employer is only swayed by nastiness and innuendo, well, soon word will spread through the employment line.

So maybe Arkansas voters could follow the examples set by Lincoln, Douglas and the state of Illinois. AETN will televise a series of debates Oct. 13-17 for the major offices and include all the candidates, including the Libertarian and Green Party nominees. (Full disclosure: I’m a questioner in two of those debates.) A televised Senate debate is planned for the state’s ABC affiliates Oct. 14.

Political elites believe most of us are not very engaged. They think we can be manipulated. Let’s prove them wrong. There’s a month left until the election. Let’s conduct our own job interviews and hire who we think are the best candidates based on who they are, the policies they support, and whether they are competent enough to do the job.

That’s what we would do with any employee that matters. Don’t these?

The United States, or these United States?

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

The federal government will not reform itself. We’re past the point of electing different politicians or enacting different policies. Instead, the government’s underlying structure must be changed through a constitutional amendment process never before used in American history.

That was the message of Michael Farris, head of the Convention of States Project, during testimony before the House and Senate State Agencies and Governmental Affairs Committees Wednesday.

The Constitution has been amended 27 times using one process – Congress proposes a change, and three-fourths of the states ratify it. But Article V of the Constitution also includes another provision where two-thirds of state legislatures, or 34, would call for a convention. Delegates would consider constitutional amendments, each state having one vote. Proposed amendments would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states – 38, in other words.

That method has never been used successfully, but Farris says it’s the only hope to fix a broken system. His group is asking states to pass resolutions for a convention that would consider how to impose fiscal restraints on the federal government, limit its powers and jurisdiction, and impose term limits on members of Congress and Supreme Court justices.

So far, Alaska, Georgia and Florida have passed nearly identical resolutions to that effect, and Farris’ group plans a hard push in about 20 states, including Arkansas, this upcoming year. Rep. Bob Ballinger, R-Hindville, said he or someone else will introduce the resolution in 2015 if it has enough support.

Farris assured legislators that Article V’s high standards for ratification – 34 states to call a convention and 38 states to ratify – mean only amendments with broad popular support would have a chance of being ratified.

That being the case, the movement must expand beyond its current base and way of thinking. Its leaders and supporters appear to be almost exclusively very conservative individuals. During a presentation to a home-schooling group Wednesday, Farris suggested one change would involve clarifying the Constitution’s “general welfare” clause so that, “If the states can spend money on it, the federal government can’t.”

That would give a lot more power and responsibility to the states, but it also would mean ending Medicare and Social Security as we know it at the federal level. Such a change would be impossible to sell politically in a lot more than 13 states.

Legislators had varying reactions to Farris’ testimony. Rep. John Walker, D-Little Rock, a well-known civil rights advocate, said the same states’ rights argument was made on behalf of slaveholders and segregationists. Farris said that wouldn’t happen again and that legislators could instruct their delegates not to repeal the Constitution’s civil rights amendments. Later in the session, Rep. Douglas House, R-North Little Rock, and Rep. Jim Nickels, D-North Little Rock, said delegates could ignore whatever instructions legislators gave them. To that, Farris replied, “We’re really dealing in international law here is what this is is because it’s a meeting of sovereign states, and there are recognized principles of international law that govern, and there are no … exceptions in international law or in American law.”

Sovereign states being governed by international law? Such thinking would be a huge leap for a lot of people. Prior to the Civil War, the United States was a plural entity, as in “these United States.” Afterwards, it became a singular: “The United States.” The emerging national identity enabled the country to become the world’s greatest economic and military power. But it’s also led to a bloated, irresponsible, and unresponsive federal government. No state manages its business as badly as the federal government does, and many, including Arkansas, do it much, much better.

A rebalancing of power is needed, though not to the extent that Farris supports. An Article V convention may the best hope of doing that because, as he argued, the government will not reform itself. And with only 13 states required to kill any measure, what’s the worst that’s likely to happen? A bunch of people gather in one place and argue forever without accomplishing anything?

We already have that. It’s called Congress. So if this just turns out to be a big waste of time, we can live with that. What we can’t live with is not trying. Thanks to Article V’s parameters, a convention probably can’t hurt, and it might do some good. I’m for it – a convention, at least, and then let’s see what amendments are proposed.

Everyone’s an extra, even in Congress

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

I’m not the good guy. Neither are you. And neither are Mark Pryor nor Tom Cotton.

I bring that up because we’re in the middle of a campaign season where television ads, and many news providers, treat what should be a statewide job interview instead like a TV show.

And boy, there are a lot of those ads. According to the Center for Public Integrity, the candidates, the parties and independent groups had broadcast 40,576 of them in Arkansas during the 2014 campaign in the Senate race alone as of Sept. 22.

From the time we are born, Americans are fed a steady diet of fiction. Movies, books, TV shows – including sitcoms – often feature three elements: a protagonist who is the hero (along with sidekicks and love interests), an antagonist who is the villain, and extras.

Except in rare cases, whoever spends the most time on camera is the hero, even if the antagonist is more worthy of admiration. For example, in “Rocky,” Rocky Balboa may have had a heart of gold, but he had been a lifetime underachiever and a loan shark’s debt collector, while Apollo Creed was an undefeated champion, smart businessman, and devoted husband and father. We cheer for Rocky.

In our lives, we’re the protagonist, so we believe we’re the hero, which means there must be villains somewhere. Our flaws are merely the personal challenges all heroes must overcome, while the villains never change and have only evil intentions. That’s how a story works.

This is not a healthy thing for any of us. It leads to pride and narrow-mindedness and a lack of grace toward others. It’s particularly problematic in politics. There are many reasons why today’s Congress is dysfunctional, but could one be that its members, raised on television like the rest of us, have bought into the fiction?

For the past year-and-a-half, we’ve watched Cotton and Pryor try to destroy each other on television. Other races with less money at their disposal are behaving in a similar fashion, especially now that the election is nearing. The gloves have really come off in the 2nd Congressional District race between French Hill and Patrick Henry Hays.

I’ve been around enough of these campaigns to know that few of the candidates believe they are at fault. Both sides believe their opponent started it all by lying and slinging mud, so everything they do now is justifiable. In the battle between good and evil, the stakes are too high to worry about fair play.

The next time you’re tempted to put your faith in a politician, or even, for 700 words, a columnist, google “Voyager” and “Pale Blue Dot.” You’ll see a photo of Earth taken by Voyager I from four billion miles away. The planet is tiny. On that little blue dot are billions of smaller dots, all of us running around thinking we are the center of the universe – or at least, the hero of the story.

The truth is, we’re all extras. Every last one of us.

It’s not that either Cotton or Pryor are villains. In fact, they’re both good people – good extras. But when 535 extras journey to Congress, all believing they’re the hero and all looking for dragons to slay, well, then you get the train wreck that Washington has become.

There’s a reason the Constitution’s defining principle is a limitation of power. Our government is designed to prevent the rise of even the most benevolent of dictators for fear of where that could lead.

Under the Constitution, compromise and cooperation are required to accomplish even basic governance, despite the fact that it’s bad TV. For us to think constitutionally requires us to overcome a lifetime of fictional programming, where you don’t compromise or cooperate with the villain. You defeat him, and then you get the girl.

But that’s TV, not real life. I’m not sure if today’s candidates always know the difference. I’m not sure if we voters do, either.

“That girl” makes good money as a welder

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

If you were asked to describe a welder, it probably wouldn’t be much like Tori Huggins.

The 29-year-old graduated Hendrix College in 2007 an All-American in basketball with a degree in theatre and kinesiology – and $40,000 in debt she couldn’t repay.

“I was that girl that went back to my parents’ house, living in the basement,” she said.

Many years earlier, Huggins had been singed by a spark while her dad was welding and refused to go anywhere near the activity again. But during college summer breaks, she’d done some basic welding in a boat factory in her hometown of Clinton, and she continued working there after college.

After a tornado destroyed the factory, she decided to get serious about welding and discovered she loved it. Soon she was traveling the country working in nuclear power plants and earning enough to pay off her debt in three years. She bought a car and a house in Conway.

Today, she teaches welding at the Plumbers and Pipefitters Joint Apprenticeship Center in Little Rock, a state-funded program where 12 students learn a skill that in 18 weeks will take many of them from minimum wage backgrounds to $18 an hour. She tries to encourage more women to follow her example. Classes are free and also available in Fort Smith and El Dorado. The school’s phone number is 501-562-4482.

Huggins this past Tuesday shared her story during a panel discussion at Jobs Now, a summit sponsored by the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce. Before an audience of 500, she wore a smart business suit and spoke confidently alongside her fellow big shots on stage.

The conference’s purpose was to consider ways to match unemployed and underemployed Arkansas workers, like Huggins once was, with the tens of thousands of skilled trade jobs that are remaining unfilled and those that will be available as older workers retire. Steve Williams, CEO of Maverick Transportation, said he had parked 100 18-wheelers because he couldn’t find reliable drivers. That job starts at $52,000.

Two common mentalities clearly need to go by the wayside.

One is that learning a trade is somehow inferior to going to college. Too often, young people are encouraged to make good grades so they can get a scholarship – and if they don’t go to college, well, maybe they can get a job in construction or something. Skilled tradesmen often earn higher salaries than college graduates, and their jobs require no less brainwork.

“We don’t put in nuclear powerhouses by being a bunch of idiots,” Huggins told me. “You’ve got to know offsets, you’ve got to do fractions and multiplication and all this stuff, and at times even a little bit of calculus here and there.”

The other outdated attitude is that “getting an education” means leaving home for four years after high school. Colleges and universities should be oriented toward nimbly moving students of all ages to employability in an ever-shifting economy. Moreover, as Dr. Glen Fenter, president of Mid-South Community College, said during the panel discussion with Huggins, all students should graduate high school with a job skill, not just a diploma.

Some of this is already happening – the state-funded Plumbers and Pipefitters Joint Apprenticeship Center being an example. At Northwest Arkansas Community College in Bentonville, some students, instead of earning credit hours, obtain certificates that move them straight into jobs with Walmart and its suppliers. Many high school students take concurrent credit classes that shorten their college careers. At Maumelle High School, students declare a “pathway” and leave school with a marketable skill.

How do we get more of this? Joe Quinn, Walmart’s senior director of pubic affairs and government relations, said in the panel discussion that the next governor should make workforce development a signature issue.

Both Asa Hutchinson and Mike Ross have shared ideas on the campaign trail. Hutchinson favors economic development plans tying together high schools and two-year-colleges based on regional opportunities. Ross has called for sending reports home with eighth and 11th grade students projecting common careers and salaries when they enter the workforce. “Too many people today are going to college and getting degrees in what makes them feel good rather than where the jobs are,” Ross told school board members this summer.

That’s sort of what happened to Huggins, but in a good way. She got a degree that made her feel good, and now she has a career that makes her feel good.

Asa vs. Mike: Different, but not really

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

The race for U.S. Senate features two candidates of completely different ideologies, approaches, backgrounds and temperaments. If you believe that Sen. Mark Pryor is right, then you almost have to believe that Rep. Tom Cotton is wrong.

The race for governor between former Rep. Asa Hutchinson and former Rep. Mike Ross? Not so much. State government, as opposed to D.C. politics, tends to force both parties to the center anyway, and that’s definitely the case this year.

Friday night’s testy televised governor’s debate sponsored by KARK illustrated the candidates’ differences that are not so different. As they have throughout this campaign, they disagreed, sometimes personally, on policies but not so much on goals. You know those online roadmap programs where you type in your starting point and your destination and are presented three routes that eventually converge? One of those routes is Hutchinson, and one is Ross.

For example, Hutchinson says he wants to be the “jobs governor,” while Ross says he wants to be the “education governor.” But both men know the state needs a good education system to create jobs, and both men know it needs jobs to pay for a good education system.

Both candidates want to cut income taxes by reforming the state’s tax code, which hasn’t been modernized since 1971 and therefore places Arkansans earning only $34,000 a year in the highest tax bracket of 7 percent. Hutchinson would reduce rates for Arkansans earning from $20,400 to $75,000. Ross would raise the top tax bracket’s minimum income to $75,100, meaning it would capture fewer Arkansans. Hutchinson would implement his plan next year; Ross would phase in his over time but says his would be bigger.

Different? Sure. But either candidate could have proposed either plan.

On some other issues, the candidates largely agree. They’re both not crazy about the state spending $100 million to build another prison and would like to consider alternative sentences. They both support keeping the Governor’s Quick Action Closing Fund, which gives the governor a pile of money to use to attract employers.

Even some areas of disagreement are largely differences of degree. For example, Ross’ signature education proposal would increase state pre-kindergarten funding for four-year-olds so that it eventually covers all families with incomes up to 400 percent of the federal poverty level. It currently covers families up to 200 percent but is not fully funded. Pre-K is not really Hutchinson’s thing, but he says he’d fully fund it up to 200 percent.

Those are real differences with consequences, but they don’t represent radically different visions of what the state should look like.

As for the state’s Medicaid private option, Ross is clearly a defender. Hutchinson has not said he’s against it, which means he’s mostly for it. If Ross is elected governor, he’ll probably fight Republicans in the Legislature to keep it largely as it is. If Hutchinson wins, he’ll probably work with Republican legislators to change it without trashing it. Neither would jeopardize his tax cut plan by refusing billions of federal dollars currently insuring 200,000 Arkansans.

Even their backgrounds are not that different. They both tout their modest, middle class upbringings. They both are establishment-type candidates who have spent a lot of time in Washington, which is not necessarily a bad thing. Hutchinson was elected to Congress in 1996 and then served as director of the Drug Enforcement Administration and then as under secretary of the Department of Homeland Security. Ross spent 12 years in Congress. Ross is a conservative Democrat and Hutchinson is a conservative Republican, but neither are bomb-throwers.

Of course these two men are different, and they would be different governors. But if you are a Hutchinson supporter, you could probably live with Mike Ross, and vice versa. Arkansas state government under either man would look about the same, while 100 Tom Cottons in the U.S. Senate would produce very different results than 100 Mark Pryors.

School elections: big issues, few voters

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

You wouldn’t know it from all the political ads still running, but some of the most important elections in Arkansas this year have already occurred.

Those would be Tuesday’s school elections.

In Jacksonville and north Pulaski County, 95 percent of voters elected to separate from the Pulaski County Special School District, a large doughnut-shaped district that surrounds Little Rock and North Little Rock. Voters wanted more of a say in a district whose administrative offices are on the other side of the county.

That’s a big deal. Ninety-five percent of voters don’t agree on anything unless they live in North Korea. It also represents a temporary break from a historical trend of school consolidation. According to a history written by Kellar Noggle, former executive director of the Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators, Arkansas had 4,734 school districts in 1927. Before Tuesday, that number had shrunk to 238. Unless another consolidates before Jacksonville’s separation is complete, there will be 239.

While the Jacksonville election attracted almost 4,000 voters, turnout elsewhere was low, as always. Two competitive school board races that unseated incumbents in the 25,000-student Little Rock School District attracted a little over 1,300 voters. Before the election, Randy Zook, head of the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce, asked 400 Rotarians in Little Rock if they knew the date of the upcoming vote. Half a dozen raised their hands.

It’s a problem when a school board election in Little Rock is decided by a vote of 379-221. Those low numbers make it easier to manipulate an election and then manipulate policymaking. A candidate can be elected with the support of a few people with an agenda and then try to implement that agenda once in office.

The rest of this column will cover what, if anything, should be done about this low turnout. I should disclose that I publish a magazine, Report Card, in partnership with the Arkansas School Boards Association (ASBA). It is supported by advertising, and ASBA does not pay me, but I have done other work in which it has. I think I can play this straight.

It’s understandable that school board elections attract little attention. School board offices are unpaid, part-time, and nonpartisan. Most candidates don’t have the funds to advertise and attract voters’ attention – especially in a year like this when the U.S. Senate and governor’s races grab so many headlines.

If the problem is simply a lack of attention, could that be fixed? Last year, the advocacy group Arkansas Learns spent $100,000 on advertisements and automated phone calls encouraging people to vote – not for a particular candidate, just to vote – in various contested races. It made so little difference that it did not repeat the effort this year.

Arkansas Learns’ president and CEO, Gary Newton, instead favors holding school board elections in November with the other races. Doing so would result in more voters expressing their will and would reduce the potential for manipulation that can result from low turnout. The idea has been proposed in previous legislative sessions and been voted down, but it might pass in 2015. Arkansas has moved the date of school elections before. A few decades ago, they were in March.

ASBA is opposed. It says school elections should be a separate vote and that November elections would politicize a traditionally nonpartisan office. Don’t make the local banker and the local farmer running for school board compete for attention with Mark Pryor and Tom Cotton, it says. A lot of voters will just end up guessing.

I come down on ASBA’s side on this. My November ballot is already too crowded with races for U.S. Senate, U.S. Congress, governor, lieutenant governor, attorney general, secretary of state, treasurer, auditor, land commissioner, county judge, sheriff, and who knows what else. I don’t even know who some of these people are or what the offices really do.

On the other hand, I publish a quarterly magazine for school board members, and this election nearly snuck up on me as a journalist. Who thinks about voting in September?

There is one other alternative: Get rid of school boards. However, so much power in education has already moved to the state and federal levels. Unless mayors are put in charge, without school boards, there would be no local control at all.

You might argue it doesn’t really matter where school policy is made. It certainly mattered to the folks in Jacksonville.

GOP Senate takeover is best for all

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

This is not an endorsement of Rep. Tom Cotton, but it’s best for everyone – in some ways, even President Obama – if Republicans take over the Senate. They are almost certain to maintain control of the House, so a GOP-controlled Senate is the only way our government might be able to function during the next two years.

We’ve seen what happens when one party controls the House and the other controls the Senate in the current political climate – a complete train wreck. Nobody has to take responsibility because everybody can just blame the other side. As a result, Americans have witnessed a series of avoidable fiscal crises and a government shutdown. It’s also why we’ve seen hundreds of show votes that have little purpose but to score political points, such as the Republican House’s dozens of votes to repeal or cripple Obamacare. Those bills died in the Senate, which the House members knew would happen all along.

Just as a split Congress is bad for the country, so too is one-party control. Under the Constitution, the White House and Congress are supposed to check and balance each other. But the way the system has evolved, when the president and the congressional majority are of the same party, they see themselves as members of the same team.

In contrast, the government functioned reasonably well at times from 1994-2000, when Democrats controlled the White House under President Clinton and Republicans controlled Congress. The melting pot of ideas and priorities brought both branches of government to the center. Together they reformed welfare and passed polices that enabled the government to balance the budget, sort of. On the other hand, Monica Lewinsky happened.

If Republicans win control of the Senate (and keep the House), they will have a responsibility to govern, not just oppose Obama. They will need to show the country they can accomplish something constructive so they can win again in 2016.

So there will not be dozens of votes to repeal Obamacare because if Republicans actually did that, they’d have the responsibility to replace it with something else, and they don’t know what that would be.

Instead, GOP members will pass one bill to repeal Obamacare in the House and try to pass one in the Senate to satisfy their base voters. If it somehow survived a Democratic filibuster attempt in the Senate, Obama of course would use his veto. If that were to happen, everyone on both sides would rant and rave, and then hopefully Congress would get down to business and start amending the law – for example, by passing tort reform to limit the excesses of medical malpractice lawsuits. Obama might even sign such a bill because a Republican takeover of the Senate would force (and on some issues allow) him and some congressional Democrats to move to the center.

Mike Ross, who spent 12 years in the U.S. House of Representatives, has made a similar argument in his race for governor. Republicans already are assured of a minimum of 20 of the 35 seats in the Arkansas Senate. They’ll almost certainly control the House as well.

Ross has said his election will keep one party from controlling everything. That’s true, although the Arkansas governor’s veto is far less powerful than the president’s. While a presidential veto requires a two-thirds vote to override, the state Legislature merely needs a simple majority, which is the same percentage that passed the bill in the first place. Still, the governor is the state’s chief executive – the one able to get everybody’s attention, and the one who remains in Little Rock administering state government after legislators have gone home.

So Ross is right. Voting for him will result in divided government in Little Rock, and voting for his opponent, Asa Hutchinson, will result in one-party control.

That’s not an endorsement of Ross any more than this column is endorsing Cotton. There are many other reasons to choose one candidate over the other. Besides, Little Rock is not Washington – not now, and hopefully not ever.