By Steve Brawner
© 2015 by Steve Brawner Communications, Inc.
This week, state legislators, many of them elected promising to fight big government, voted for a lot of it, coming and going. They did so because today’s realities trump their political ideologies.
The legislators voted in special session for an $87 million bond package, paid for by Arkansas taxpayers, to help Lockheed Martin win a federal government contract to build 55,000 Joint Light Tactical Vehicles near Camden. In other words, state taxpayers will go into debt so the federal government can spend money.
This is corporate welfare at its most naked. Almost all of the package, $83 million, is going directly to a global company with $45.6 billion in sales last year, dwarfing Arkansas’ state budget. The practice is so ingrained that, during a press conference on the Capitol steps Tuesday, when asked why taxpayers should give his company money, a Lockheed representative simply turned and walked away from the podium, letting Gov. Asa Hutchinson answer the question.
All of this should be contrary to somebody’s political ideology, and yet of course legislators said yes, because in this case, reality is far more important. And the reality is that this project is expected to create at least 600 jobs and perhaps far more in south Arkansas, which badly needs them.
This would be the auto plant Arkansas has long wanted, but it’s even better because the customer is almost guaranteed to buy the plant’s products. Moreover, in addition to Uncle Sam’s 55,000-vehicle order, foreign governments will come shopping. Suppliers would locate close to the JLTV factory, creating more jobs. The presence of the JLTV facility would increase the area’s defense presence; already, hardware such as the Patriot missile is produced there. And if the state does this auto plant right, maybe civilian auto manufacturers could be persuaded to locate here as well. These things tend to snowball.
Those are realities. Here’s another one: Legislators knew the next potential large employer might want to locate in their district. They’d better play ball with south Arkansas lawmakers, because someday they may need their votes.
Finally, there’s this reality. Lockheed Martin is competing against two strong companies, Oshkosh and AM General, maker of the Humvee. The Pentagon has already decided that these 55,000 vehicles will be built somewhere, so Arkansas taxpayers will pay for them regardless. If 600 jobs are to be created, it might as well be in Camden.
Human beings need foundational beliefs lest we twist in the wind. For lawmakers, those foundational beliefs might include – actually, I hope they include – an aversion to big government and corporate welfare.
But there’s a difference between foundational beliefs, which allow room for difficult moral judgments and common sense, and rigid political ideology, which runs everything through a filter and requires new facts to conform to prior beliefs, or to be ignored.
Outside of this session, legislators and others are talking about difficult issues that won’t be settled in three days: how Arkansas’ health care system should look; how it should fund highways; how it should reform its prison system; what it should do about the Common Core.
If lawmakers are willing to vote for the JLTV package because it’s better to do so than not, then let’s hope they are willing to accept some other realities as well, and then work within them. Ideologically, they may hate the private option, but the reality is that it now provides health insurance for a quarter million Arkansans who mostly wouldn’t have it otherwise, so if they want it to go away, they should replace it with a better idea. The reality is that highways are badly underfunded, so if lawmakers’ ideology says that taxes are bad but roads are good, they need to offer creative ideas that are consistent with their foundational beliefs but not hamstrung by rigid ideologies.
If it were up to me, the federal government would buy fewer than 55,000 JLTVs. We’re going to pass part of the cost to our kids, and that’s not right. But if they’re going to be built, I hope they’re built in Camden by my fellow Arkansans. All things being equal, I think you take care of your own first.
It’s a foundational belief.