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.