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.

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