Lunch club

We were marking time, we of our little lunch club, sipping our iced tea and awaiting the most conservative of our number, the stockbroker — investment counselor, as he prefers to call himself. We had not gathered in weeks, not since the year began, not since the General Assembly had got down to business. Placing our orders in his absence wouldn’t be sporting. He joked that he probably was busy taking orders: puts and calls, buy, sell, etc.

Sure enough: “Hell of a morning!” he enthused, taking his seat after blowing through the door like the Dow with a herd of bulls behind it. Commissions, commissions.

“I take it you’re picking up the check,” joked one of the lawyers at the table, the slightly left of center one.

“Champagne for the house!” chimed one of the other barristers, the one we refer to as Big D Democrat.

“It’s roarin’ back to life, guys,” the broker grinned, the morning’s happy stock tables as visible in his face as on the television sets suspended from the joint’s walls; the little “crawls” on the bottom of the CNN and Fox and MSNBC flat screens were displaying one green “up” arrow after another. From a stack of them the broker plucked the menu he didn’t need — he would, as always, order a foot-long with extra chili and cheese, fries on the side —and proclaimed: “Let’s have a sequester year-round!”

“It hasn’t even started yet,” Big D reminded him.

“Oh?” the broker teased. “Aren’t we in Day Whatever? No White House tours or whatever? No taking government cars home?”

“It hasn’t even started yet,” Big D said again. The like one another, really they do, but already I could see the broker was getting under Big D’s skin, just as always.

Our group’s other broker — insurance is his game — sided, gently, with Big D. “I don’t know what’s been shut down or slowed down. But the screws haven’t been tightened yet.”

“I’m betting they won’t be, not much,” said the third lawyer, a mainstream kind of guy who we strongly suspect is a regular ticket-splitter, the one who votes for the man (or woman), not the party. “I can’t believe they’ll have to turn ‘em very much before the howls will get to both Obama and the Republicans. They’ll cut a deal of some kind.”

Another of us, a mid-level federal agency manager, was looking a little — distracted. “You guys understand those cuts would come out of discretionary spending.” It was not a question. “This (sequester) leaves entitlements out of it. Let it keep going through the end of the fiscal (year) and don’t think you won’t feel $85 billion over seven months.”

The broker — the investment counselor — was undeterred. “So maybe we have fewer flights, we leave for the airport sooner. They cut some rinky-dink control towers that probably don’t have enough traffic to begin with. Maybe…”

“I fly more often than you do,” I cut in.

“Okay, okay, control towers — leave ‘em be. Cut somewhere else,” the broker conceded, taking delivery of his chili-and-cheese platter.

“They’re across-the-board cuts. By law,” Big D observed. “Can’t favor one agency over another.”

“So they say,” broker countered. “Here’s betting they can move enough money around to make everything work so nobody much notices.”

Big D started to have another go at him but the insurance man changed the dialogue if not exactly the subject.

“Well, you’re about to get some help from the legislature,” he breezed.

“Gonna blow Beebe’s budget to smithereens,” guessed Mainstream Lawyer.

“How much?” asked the stockbroker, turning to me. “The budget.” I assumed he meant the budget the Governor was proposing.

“Beebe’s? About $5 billion,” I said.

“Tell me you can’t cut at least a couple hundred million from that without feeling anything. Anything,” he dared the table.

The table was silent for a moment. Even the federal guy, whose budget comes from Washington and not Little Rock, was a bit —befuddled.

“It’s going to be a stretch to take care of what we’re already committed to, not to mention Medicaid,” said Slightly Left of Center.

The insurance man suggested that none of us, we fortunate us, would likely miss a meal or a mortgage payment if the new Republican majorities engineered tax cuts larger than the grocery tax reduction Mr. Beebe has proposed, and that on a contingency basis. But, he added, the GOP was talking about cuts not terribly smaller than a “couple hundred million” that, he reckoned, would surely impact on services.

Stockbroker was shaking his head. He pointed to the green arrows on the television monitors. “Budget. Income tax, capital gains — cut ‘em and watch what happens.”

“Cut ‘em and watch what happens,” Big D muttered to me.

“I guess we’ll see what happens,” I said.

• • •

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