Hard work

The 89th General Assembly, now in the first days of the third month of its regular session, has devoted its initial eight weeks to directing people how they can live their lives, including protecting their own, perhaps taking others: who and where they may carry firearms, and who need obtain a concealed weapon permit, and whether such supposedly public records ought not be public at all; and abortion, lots of abortion debate — none after 20 weeks? None after 12? Overdoing it a bit? Governor Beebe thought so, though he did not address the bills in quite in that fashion; both bills, he noted, are in direct conflict with standards set forth by the U.S. Supreme Court. (And although he did not say so both laws likely will be stayed with the plaintiffs’ first pleading in the legal challenge the American Civil Liberties Union pledges to bring). Prudence demanded vetoes, politics demanded overrides.

Too, there was Medicaid expansion — the session’s 800-pound gorilla. The outcome is yet to be decided, though changes to the initial schematic have worked to the liking of the dominant Republican membership. Compelling Mr. Beebe to wring concessions from Washington that would permit a shuffling of potential Medicaid enrollees to private, federally-subsidized plans, it appears the GOP will have actually increased by several thousand dollars the per-patient cost. Irony there, a bit: a common Republican rebuttal to the original plan was that all tax dollars matter, even those from the nation’s capitol, and that legislators in the state capitol ought to stand fast, help set an example, against higher spending. The deficit, the debt — you remember.

No one is suggesting that expanding handgun privileges and limiting women’s rights to reproductive self-determination isn’t hard work. It just wasn’t terribly hard work, not in these times. The lopsided majorities in both chambers that sent such hot button issues to Mr. Beebe’s desk for signature or non-signature, or as override bait, established that they weren’t especially hot, not any longer, and that lawmaking in Arkansas, in the Epoch of Obama, has entered a new, ideological era — one that could profoundly disrupt the arc the Governor intended to extend for the state, one he (still) hopes to enjoy when he returns to private life in less than two years.

Which is to say, it is money time.

The legislature can put a pistol in every pew, send women seeking abortions to other states (or more dangerous rooms); it can tinker with the criminal code and set standards for muffler installers — do about anything it wants provided the governor goes along (and sometimes if he doesn’t) or until and unless the courts intervene. But it’s primary responsibility is money. Writing a budget. Determining who, or which agency, gets it, how much and when.

Whatever Mr. Beebe’s personal feelings about social questions such as guns or abortion or executions or gay marriage (there is no reason to regard him as a cultural liberal) fiscal matters get his attention, fast. So, health care, and the state’s ever-growing tab for treating low-income residents: the Medicaid tango he and the legislative leadership have been dancing since before the session began. Hard work.

And more now, since it’s money time. The proposal by Rep. Bruce Westerman, a Republican of Hot Springs and the House majority leader, to limit future state general revenue spending to economic growth is anathema to the administration even though its impact would not be realized before the fairways become Mr. Beebe’s next office, and even though it contains escape clauses for “emergencies.”

Then there’s the latest attempt by the highway lobby, in the person of Rep. Jonathan Barnett (R-Siloam Springs), a former state highway commissioner, to claim a share of general revenues, which fund public schools, higher education, prisons and, yes, Medicaid. As would Westerman’s initiative, the Barnett bill would have minimal effect during the remains of Mr. Beebe’s tenure but the squeeze on education and other general services would be undeniable as its phase-in progresses. Like his predecessors, and no matter its needs, Mr. Beebe is adamantly opposed to opening to the highway commission the general revenue door.

The governor’s most immediate budget worry is the GOP’s hunger for tax cuts, which he argues would not open the door but blow it off its hinges. Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) has recommended to his chamber at least $150 million in tax reductions, even as Mr. Beebe has conditioned elimination of the sales tax on groceries on economic growth that may not permit it before he’s back in Searcy.

Searcy beckons, surely. First there are the several contests at hand, and the ones to follow next year when money time comes again, when again the options before Mr. Beebe and the legislature will be prudence and politics.

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Steve Barnes is a native of Pine Bluff and host of Arkansas Week on AETN.