Notes on the government and political scene


And you wondered how long much time would pass before Congress rebelled against the Postal Service’s decision to end Saturday mail deliveries?

Less than one day.

To be completely fair about it the Service’s management long ago singled that terminating first-class and “junk” mail (packages would be excluded) deliveries on Saturdays was in the first tier of solutions to the billions of dollars in deficits it runs every year. The 2012 shortfall was approached $16 billion, and in four years the loss is predicted to increase by one-third.

Ending Saturday mail would be easy to implement — just stop delivering it. Immediate savings: $2 billion per year, by the Service’s estimate.

Oh, but it’s not that easy. The postal workers union is opposed. Some businesses are opposed. And rural America is opposed. When rural Arkansas is opposed the six Arkansas delegates in Washington sit up. Our two senators don’t need a statistical abstract to know the landscape, and even the most urban of our four House districts, all represented by Republicans, contain hundreds of thousands of voters who prefer country to town.

There is also the matter of whether the Service has the authority to abandon Saturday deliveries (most post offices would remain open) without congressional authorization; the statutes are unclear. It is not reasonable to presume that, as presumably reasonable people, Arkansas’s senators and representatives understand the dollars-and-cents of the Service’s dilemma and hope to be given a pass on the issue, the tied-hands formula, permitting the reduction in deliveries provided the agency’s executives take the fall?

The red ink, it is universally agreed, results to no small extent from a 2006 congressional mandate (in a lame duck session, with the GOP controlling both houses) that the Service “fund forward” the medical program for its retirees, a requirement unique to government agencies and a $6 billion annual drain on its revenues.

Senators Pryor (a Democrat up for re-election year) and Boozman, of the GOP, support a postal “reform” bill (it died last year) that would continue Saturday deliveries but which opponents say would not go far enough fast enough to reduce the losses. Within hours of the formal announcement that the Service planned to end Saturday mail, effective come August, both men issued statements holding fast to six-day deliveries. So did Rep. Rick Crawford of the First District. Reps. Tim Griffin and Tom Cotton, of the Second and Fourth Districts, respectively, had not been heard on the matter at press time.

Not so Rep. Steve Womack of the Third.

“Much like the federal government, the United States Postal Service has been hemorrhaging money for years,” Womack said in a press release. “I commend (the Postal Service) for making tough — but necessary — decisions” toward its deficits.

None of Arkansas’s five Republican members were in Congress in 2006 — interestingly, a year in which the Service reported a profit.

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Nobody sympathizes much with journalists, nor should they. We chose the trade. But the Arkansas Freedom of Information (FOI) Act, which is not a journalist’s law but the public’s — its defense is always in the public interest. As is keeping public the tens of thousands of concealed carry permits, the state’s authorization for civilians to carry handguns in pocket or purse. Under Senate Bill 131, which passed the upper chamber with only nine announced “No” votes and which is now pending in the House, these permits would become the only state licensures to be kept secret. The justification its advocates offer is security and privacy. Paranoia is the better description. At present the roster of pistol permit holders discloses only their names and zip codes, a compromise reached in an earlier legislative session when opponents of disclosure attempted what SB131 would accomplish.

Gov. Beebe, whose defense of the FOI has been consistent, has publicly expressed concern about the bill. When I asked his press secretary, Matt DeCample, whether SB131 was “veto bait,” I got this e-mailed reply: “We declare no potential vetoes before their time.”

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A new turn in state government service for another former state legislator, Jim Luker of Wynne. Term-limited in, first, the House of Representatives and then the Senate, Luker becomes director of Health Services Permits by appointment of Gov. Beebe. Luker was a workhorse, not a showhorse. More than any other legislator he was willing to tackle head-on the enormous fiscal consequences of “get-tough” sentencing laws, which swelled the state’s inmate population at the expense of public schools, higher education and health care. Eventually Luker’s message began to get through to his colleagues and to the criminal justice community and a measure of sanity was restored to the sentencing code. Luker, a moderate Democrat, can be expected to give good value for the dollar in his new position, which will continue as long as Mr. Beebe, or his successor, wish.

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