One state’s chaotic, creative conservatism

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

If I were to tell you that a state legislature this year passed a six-cent gas tax increase. abolished the death penalty, and voted to let young illegal immigrants brought by their parents to America obtain a driver’s license, what state would you guess that would be? California? Massachusetts? Maybe Colorado?

Try Nebraska.

Yep. The Midwestern state where three-fourths of the legislators are Republicans did all of those things. In fact, legislators overrode their newly elected Republican governor’s veto on all three bills.

This column has an Arkansas connection, but first, what’s up with Nebraska?

The sponsor of the gas tax increase, Sen. Jim Smith, told me the bill was simply an acceptance of financial reality. The roads needed more money, and legislators didn’t trust Congress to help. Two of Nebraska’s neighbors, Iowa and South Dakota, also raised their gas taxes this year.

Regarding the death penalty ban, which he voted against, he said some Nebraska legislators are Catholic, and the Church opposes the death penalty. Also, a number of Nebraska legislators are libertarian Republicans, which means they tend to distrust government in all walks of life, including social issues. As another Nebraska lawmaker explained, if she doesn’t trust government to manage her health care, she shouldn’t trust it to put someone to death.

As for young illegal immigrants with driver’s licenses, Nebraska was the only state that had such a ban. The thinking in ending it was, the residents have a legal status under President Obama’s executive order, and they need to be able to drive in order to get to work.

There are two other things worth noting about Nebraska. While its lawmakers are Republicans and Democrats, it’s the only state where they don’t run with a party label attached. Consequently, Smith said, “We have 49 independent contractors.”

Also, Nebraska is the only state with a unicameral legislature – in other words, just a Senate with no House. While Arkansas has 135 legislators, Nebraska has 49. While Arkansas lawmakers considered 2,200 bills and passed 1,288 into law this year, Nebraska legislators only considered about 600 bills and passed about 240 into law. Could a more focused agenda help legislators engage in serious debates about big issues? Just a thought.

Here’s another reason why I’m writing about Nebraska. Republicans everywhere tend to be ideologically unified. Officeholders tend not to wander too far from party orthodoxy, even when they want to, lest they be labeled a “RINO” (Republican In Name Only) and draw a primary opponent. Republican commentators, meanwhile, are so predictable that there’s usually little point in seeing what they have to say. Democrats, long the more disorganized party, are becoming more unified, too, but this column is not about them.

And yet in Nebraska, a legislature full of Republicans passed bills that raised the gas tax, ended the death penalty, and made life easier for illegal immigrants. Those are not the standard conservative positions, but it’s not hard to see the gas tax as pro-commerce, the death penalty ban as anti-government, and the driver’s license bill as pro-personal responsibility – all principles conservatives say they support.

So if that can happen in one conservative, Republican, mid-America state with an agricultural heritage and only one football team, could it happen in another? As the Republican majority becomes more entrenched in Arkansas, like it’s already entrenched in Nebraska, could we see the emergence of a more creative, chaotic conservatism that applies the party’s principles in new ways?

Certainly, divisions among Arkansas Republicans have already occurred over issues like the Medicaid private option. Some see it as a way to reform government health care, while others see it as capitulation to Obamacare. Arkansas Republicans also will divide along urban and rural lines just like Arkansas Democrats always did, and just like Republicans do in Nebraska.

What other types of factions will form? How often will one faction team up with Democrats? And just how chaotic will it often be? It certainly was chaotic when Democrats had a secure majority.

Maybe this was an unusual year in Nebraska. Maybe it was simply that the time had come for those three bills. Or maybe voters there will send some of those legislators packing during the next election.

Or maybe it’s still possible to buck the party orthodoxy, in either party in any state, if legislators see themselves as independent contractors.

14 thoughts on “One state’s chaotic, creative conservatism

  1. Another good column….among many recent ones. I have long thought that we would probably get better legislators if they ran without a party label… And I know that Arkansas would have elected a better AG and SoS if the candidates in the last election had not run on party labels.

  2. If the federal government was truly limited by its own constitution as it was for the first 110 years of its existence, we would probably see better, more effective state governance nationwide on issues across the board.

  3. While Arkansas and Nebraska are both red states, there are important differences such as educational level. Less educated people are less likely to range very far from party orthodoxy. My experience with Arkansas is that most TVs in public places are tuned in to Faux News, and in the state newspaper we are fed a regular diet of columns by Paul Greenberg, Charles Krauthamer (such as today), and the like. Such circumstances are almost guaranteed to produce a reliable and unyielding majority opinion.

  4. I really get tired of this worn out mantra that people in southern states, such as Arkansas, are a bunch of rubes. I don’t see where the supposedly smarter, more sophisticated folks in states such as California and New York have exactly covered themselves in glory by adhering to the Democratic Party line.

  5. Hi, Mrs. Ross. Thanks as always for your kind words.. Remember in 2010, when Shane Broadway, who is as qualified as anyone to be anything, lost to Mark Darr? I’m afraid party labels will become more important than they are now. Eventually, even judges and school board members may have to declare an allegiance to someone, even if it’s not official. I guess Republicans might claim turnabout is fair play. For decades, their candidates always lost even when they were more qualified.

  6. Hi, Sandy. I do get tired of the constant barrage of one-sided “news reporting.” When I worked out in the gym, the TV was always turned up to Fox News. However, I don’t know if there’s a difference between Nebraska and Arkansas as to educational levels. Also, Arkansas at times can be a progressive, forward-thinking state, especially compared to others in the South.

  7. Good point, Steve. Notice in that story that Kentucky took an opposite approach on a t-shirt case. Marriage should be left up to the states, per the U.S. Constitution.

    Also, as the United States descends further into its post-Christian era we should look to the epistle to the Hebrews for guidance:

    For you had compassion on those in prison, and you joyfully accepted the plundering of your property, since you knew that you yourselves had a better possession and an abiding one. – Hebrews 10:34 (ESV)

  8. This was a very informative column. I wish we had better state representatives, and if we followed Nebraska’s initiative, we might very well. If we were to cull out the people like the Jason Raperts who speak without thinking, we might get our number down to a reasonable group of folks that respect each other even when they disagree. Speaking of the gym—when I go, I am the one who changes to MSNBC in the early morning. They have a conservative and a liberal leading the discussion, and they do it (generally ) without vituperativeness! Thanks again for your continuing level headedness.

  9. Thanks, Mrs. Draper. Yes, that is a much better combination – two hosts who disagree respectfully, versus four hosts who agree about everything and make fun of those who don’t.

    Actually, I think our state legislators do a pretty good job. In fact, in a committee meeting you’d be surprised how un-vituperative Sen. Rapert actually is.

  10. Ken, yes Arkansas and Oklahoma have had a progressive history, but I fear that that is all in the past for as long as the eye can see. It’s very instructive to look back half a century and see the political giants that Oklahoma was regularly sending to Congress and the governor’s mansion: people like Robert S. Kerr, Carl Albert, Mike Monroney, Ed Edmondson. These were political giants who had real vision and worked in a bipartisan way to get big things done. They were Democrats. By today’s standards the first 2 Republican governors of Oklahoma, Henry Bellmon and Dewey Bartlett, had plenty of progressive fire. But look at whom today’s Oklahomans are putting in office. They are absolute midgets with no progressive ideas at all. They universally represent the most extreme elements of the Republican Party.
    I know less about Arkansas, but I gather that it has followed a similar track. This crop of Republicans who now have control of the Arkansas legislature and governor’s mansion leave me cold. I don’t see any progressive ideas coming from them; they offer no vision that could inspire me.
    The elected officials have changed because the people have changed. I see no prospect that this situation will ever be reversed.
    I guarantee you that if Faux News had existed half a century ago, almost no gym goers in Oklahoma would have allowed it to be turned on.

  11. Sandy, my sister lives in Tulsa and we used to cry about the loss of great visionary leaders in Oklahoma. I would talk about how lucky Arkansas was to be more progressive than Oklahoma with leaders who had a broader world view, etc.
    Now we are both crying. Sad.

  12. George Anne, with Mary Fallin as governor and Sally Kern as queen of the Oklahoma House, Oklahoma has achieved a new low in governance that will probably never be surpassed anywhere else on this planet. Calling these people political midgets is about the most complimentary thing one could say about them. Descending from the great Democratic leaders of the past to people like Fallin and Kern is like falling all the way to the floor of the Grand Canyon.

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