Category Archives: Legislature

State’s top Democrat: Stop ‘screaming about Trump’

Rep. Michael John Gray, D-Augusta, says Arkansas Democrats must focus on core issues such as health care, poverty and roads.
By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Michael John Gray can trace his family’s farming heritage in Woodruff County to the year after the Civil War ended. This being Arkansas, it’s a fair assumption that all those generations before him were Democrats. But then, the rest of the state back then was, too.

Gray, D-Augusta, finds himself part of a vanishing breed in the Legislature – rural, white Democrats, which describes somewhere between eight and a dozen of the 135 legislators, depending on how you define “rural.” It wasn’t long ago that it described virtually the entire Legislature, but now Democrats mostly represent the state’s urban areas and those with high minority populations. Overall, Democrats compose only 24 of the 100 members in the House of Representatives and only nine of the 35 senators.

Gray is trying to reverse his party’s fortune as its newly elected state chairman, but he said it’s challenging when the national party is focusing on the wrong things: special elections and “the absurdity of the presidency.” Since President Trump’s election, Democrats nationally have lost four special elections, all in traditionally Republican districts. Democrats poured $25 million into the campaign of Jon Ossof, who was trying to swipe a Republican seat in a Georgia district that almost voted for Hillary Clinton last year. It was the most expensive House election in American history. In the end, Ossof did worse than she had done.

Gray said Democrats created unreasonable expectations in districts they traditionally have lost. The story could have been how they almost beat the Republicans on their home fields. Instead, it was that the Democrats lost again.

“Drop $30 million in Arkansas, and I have a fair shot at changing the face of the Legislature,” he said.

If Democrats are to change their party’s recent trajectory, they’ll have to learn lessons from places like Gray’s district, which voted for President Obama in 2012 and for the Democrats’ Senate candidate, Conner Eldridge, in 2016. But it also voted for Trump rather than Clinton.

Gray said the presidential election showed there’s a disconnect between working class Americans and the party’s base. Meanwhile, he said Democrats are “screaming about Trump” when they should be talking about crumbling roads, children going to bed hungry, and senior citizens who “have to choose between eating pet food or paying their light bill.”

And of course, there’s health care, which national Republicans are struggling mightily to change with a bill polls show is unpopular. In Arkansas, Democratic Gov. Mike Beebe’s administration implemented the private option, the program now called Arkansas Works that provides health insurance for 300,000 Arkansans. It happened in part thanks to young, creative Republican legislators. But Gray said it was made possible by Obamacare, a fact Democrats haven’t communicated well.

Those kinds of issues are important, and Arkansas Democrats like Gray are comfortable talking about them. First, however, they have to get people to listen, which can be difficult when hot-button social issues grab so much attention. Recently, Democratic National Committee Chairman Tom Perez said being pro-choice on abortion is “not negotiable,” a hardline position that brought objections from even liberal leaders including Rep. Nancy Pelosi and Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Gray disagrees, too, saying abortion should not be a litmus test. Meanwhile, he said Democrats should argue their policies will lead to fewer abortions by helping the poor and increasing access to birth control, rather than the Legislature passing abortion limitations that later are ruled unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, things happen like the guy knocking down the Ten Commandments monument at the Capitol. Gray said he “immediately cringed” when he heard the news – first, because it’s a terrible act, and second because he knew some would blame the actions of the disturbed driver on “the intolerant left.”

“We’ve got to find a way to quit feeding that story a little bit,” he said.

Can Democrats change minds, or at least move the conversation away from the issues that hurt them in a religiously conservative state to the issues that might resonate in a poor one? Gray said it won’t be easy and it will take time. But clearly, screaming about President Trump isn’t working.

“Nothing that’s been good has been built by tearing something else down,” he said. “It has been from building on what you have, and I think that’s what we’ve got to refocus on a little bit.”

Health care and the 10 Commandments: Two monumental stories

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Sometimes news stories are important, and sometimes they are mostly just eye-catching. It’s important for news providers to offer both if they want to stay in business. It’s important for news consumers to understand which is which, and when a story is both, and why.

This week was a good illustration.

On Tuesday, something important but not particularly eye-catching happened. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (see, I’ve bored you already) announced that the Senate health care bill doesn’t have enough support to come to the floor, so he’s delaying action.

Health care is perhaps the country’s most vexing domestic issue. The system has been on an unsustainable path for decades. What Congress decides to do about it is literally a life and death matter.

But Americans know politicians will argue and posture about this issue forever, and it’s been pretty clear for a while Republicans aren’t ready to repeal Obamacare, much less replace it. So I’m doubting McConnell’s decision was the lead topic of conversation at dinner tables and baseball fields across Arkansas.

Wednesday’s top story, on the other hand, was definitely eye-catching. The day after workers installed a controversial 10 Commandments monument at the Capitol, a mentally disturbed individual knocked it over with his Dodge Dart, leaving it broken on the ground.

That’s a heck of a visual, and it followed a long process that involved passing the legislation authorizing the monument, a commission determining its placement, hearings where satanists argued for their own statue of a goat creature named Baphomet, and a pledge by the Arkansas chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union that they would sue to take it down. After all that, it stood for less than a day.

I didn’t monitor every conversation at dinner tables and baseball fields across Arkansas, but I suspect more people were talking about this than were talking about Mitch McConnell.

But was it important?

Not as a statement in the country’s never-ending culture war, on either side. The driver is not an agent of supposed liberal intolerance, nor is this the fault of the monument’s outspoken opponents. On the other hand, he is not a hero for religious liberty or a defender of separating church and state. He instead is a seriously disturbed individual with a history of mental disorders who allegedly committed the same crime against a 10 Commandments monument in Oklahoma. A guy who has heard voices in his head telling him that he will be abducted by a UFO is not on either team.

But this part is important: We are a nation of laws.

Hours after the monument was destroyed, the sponsor of the legislation creating it, Sen. Jason Rapert, R-Conway, told reporters that the private organization that funded it, the American History & Heritage Foundation, had already ordered a replacement, possibly with some protective barriers. Money is being raised, and it’s possible the driver’s insurance will help cover the cost, he said.

That’s good news. Regardless of what you think about the 10 Commandments monument, we should all agree its fate shouldn’t be based on the whims of a disturbed individual. The proper way of deciding its future is through the courts, which will determine if it’s an appropriate historical marker or an unconstitutional government establishment of religion.

There’s also this. We live in a world where mentally ill people have easy access to very dangerous things such as assault weapons and 6,000-pound vehicles. That combination can do a lot of damage before authorities or bystanders can act.

We must prevent these people from doing great harm to themselves and others. Public policies must balance the rights of mentally imbalanced individuals with the need for society to protect itself. Meanwhile, the health care system must be part of the solution. It must provide better mental health services.

However, as we all know, it’s hard to change the health care system. Did you see where Mitch McConnell delayed a vote on the Senate health care bill? That was really important.

Extra cash for highways?

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

Arkansas does not have Tennessee’s Great Smoky Mountains, but it does have the Ozarks and the Ouachitas. It does not have Elvis’ Graceland home, but it does have the birthplace of Johnny Cash. Unlike Tennessee, it does not have $2 billion to play with, but, like Tennessee, could it also find hundreds of millions of dollars for highways?

The question is asked after the Arkansas Highway Commission voted June 7 to pursue a ballot initiative for 2018 to raise up to $400 million a year for road construction.

That was step one of about a thousand. Forgive this run-on sentence, but the Commission and supporters such as the Arkansas Good Roads Foundation would have to decide on a specific proposal, obtain the attorney general’s approval, raise money to collect 67,887 voter signatures, raise money to defend against the inevitable last-minute legal challenge, raise money for the campaign, and then win the campaign.

The Highway Commission took this step because it’s tired of waiting on the Legislature and Gov. Asa Hutchinson, who have talked some about highways but not made them a priority. Funding for highways has been mostly flat for decades as spending for other state needs has increased significantly. Arkansas voters did approve an interstate bond issue in 2011 and passed a temporary half-cent sales tax in 2012, and last year Hutchinson cobbled together $50 million in state funds to make the state eligible for $200 million in federal ones. But the Highway Commission and the state Department of Transportation say that’s not enough.

One reason for the shortfall is the primary highway funding mechanism, the motor fuels tax, has not increased at the state level since 2001 and at the federal level since 1993. While motorists are paying the same 39.9 cents per gallon that they were in 2001, road construction costs have increased. Meanwhile, cars have become more fuel efficient, which means we’re buying fewer gallons and therefore paying less in taxes.

The easiest way to increase highway funding is to raise fuel taxes, or at least index them to inflation, but polls have shown Arkansans oppose much of an increase, and those polls are backed up by what legislators hear personally from their constituents. Aware of public opinion, legislators said no this year to a proposal that would have asked voters to approve a wholesale sales tax increase on fuel. Meanwhile, efforts in previous years to direct various auto-related revenues to highways, such as sales taxes on car purchases, failed because of opposition from other interests who depend on those revenues.

Would voters be OK with higher fuel taxes if they received a tax cut elsewhere? That’s what happened this year in Tennessee, where the Legislature and Gov. Bill Haslam raised $350 million for highways primarily through a six-cent gasoline tax increase and a 10-cent diesel tax increase. At the same time, $410 million in other taxes were cut, including that state’s food tax by 20 percent.

The combination means Tennesseans will pay less in taxes while spending more on roads. Also, Arkansans will help pay for those roads when they drive in Tennessee and stop for gas.

Could Arkansas do the same? Unfortunately, not so easily. Tennessee has nearly $2 billion in surplus funds this year, while Arkansas had to cut its budget to bring it into balance. Meanwhile, Arkansas would need much higher taxes. To raise $400 million here, fuel taxes would have to increase 28.4 cents a gallon.

So unlike Tennessee, Arkansas probably could spend significantly more on highways only through increasing total taxes or cutting spending elsewhere, or a combination thereof. That’s politically very challenging, which is why elected officials haven’t done it. A legislative task force is combing through the tax code trying to make it simpler, potentially creating room for tax cuts by ending some deductions. In the process, it might find more money for highways. But its recommendations won’t be considered by the full Legislature until 2019, and there’s no guarantee any will become law.

About half the states have increased fuel taxes in the past five years, including five this year. States know they can’t wait for money for Uncle Sam, who has his own problems. Will Arkansas join them, or find other ways to fund highways? It could happen, but it won’t be easy in a state that’s home to Johnny Cash but not much extra cash.

Lawyers vs. legislators

By Steve Brawner
© 2017 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.

It could be argued that two of the three most important votes this year in Arkansas state politics occurred Feb. 16 and Feb. 27, and the third will occur this Friday.

The first two votes are when the Arkansas Senate and Arkansas House advanced a proposed constitutional amendment limiting lawsuit awards. We voters will decide its fate in the November 2018 elections.

The third will be in Hot Springs June 16, when the Arkansas Bar Association’s House of Delegates votes on whether to pursue a dueling proposal barring such lawsuit limits that also would appear on the November 2018 ballot.

The one proposed by legislators would limit punitive damages in civil lawsuits to the greater of $500,000 or three times the compensatory damages awarded in the case, except when the harm was caused intentionally. Noneconomic damages, sort of a vague term, would be limited to $500,000. The Legislature would be empowered to increase both of those amounts with a two-thirds vote. Lawyers’ contingency fees would be limited to one-third the judgment.

The amendment is supported by powerful groups, including the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and those representing health care providers. They want to reduce the risk of jackpot jury verdicts that produce a climate of uncertainty, raise insurance rates, and require costly cover-your-rear actions ultimately paid by consumers and resulting in lost jobs. If your local hospital no longer delivers babies, it’s because the insurance is too high and the fear of a lawsuit is too great.

Opponents, including the Arkansas Bar Association, which represents attorneys, of course don’t see it that way. They say juries should be trusted, not limited, and that the awards prescribed by the amendment are so low that big, bad actors won’t be deterred from harmful activities. They say the upfront costs of lawsuits can be daunting with no guarantee of a payout, so capping attorneys’ fees will make it harder for Arkansans to find a lawyer willing to represent their case.

This already was going to be a heavyweight brawl between two groups with access to money and reasons to spend it. Aside from the legitimate philosophical differences, we’re talking about rich people’s livelihoods – those of business executives and medical providers who say enough is enough, and those of attorneys whose bottom lines would be significantly shortened. So Arkansas voters next year presumably will see plenty of 30-second ads defining the bad guys (evil corporations or unscrupulous lawyers, depending on who is funding the spot) and the heroes/victims (average Arkansans, either way).

But then the Arkansas Bar Association came up with another idea – pass its own, equally far-reaching amendment. It would do away with all the caps included in the Legislature’s measure while also taking more than a few shots at the legislators themselves – increasing transparency for campaign contributions, prohibiting legislators from directing how state funds are spent locally, reducing their authority over state agency decisions, and increasing the number of votes needed to override a governor’s veto from the current simple majority to two-thirds.

An added twist occurred last week, when the State Chamber’s President and CEO, Randy Zook, sent a letter to its members asking them to encourage their hired law firms to vote against the measure.

On Friday, the ABA’s House of Delegates will vote on whether to pursue the amendment, which its Legislation Committee unanimously endorsed.

The pluses? As a political strategy, the amendment would enable the ABA to play offense rather than just defense. Also, instead of the campaign being mostly lawyers vs. business owners and doctors, it also would be a more winnable lawyers vs. legislators.

But unlike the Legislature’s amendment, getting the proposal on the ballot would require supporters to collect 84,859 signatures, which would cost millions of dollars and inevitably lead to a lawsuit by opponents hoping to block the measure.

Things will get really interesting if they’re both on the ballot. One limits jury awards. The other says jury awards can’t be limited. One or the other could pass. If they both pass, the one with the most votes wins. If neither passes, things stay the same – meaning no lawsuit limits.

That means the Bar Association would have more paths to victory than the Chamber-supported amendment. Not necessarily better, but more.