Successful session? Only time will tell

It’s over. It ran a month beyond what the authors of the 1874 Arkansas Constitution thought would be necessary to get the job done — 90 days, they reckoned, ought to do it. There was no Medicaid program to fund in those days, however, nor any incentive from Washington to care for the poor who went without health care, or who paid for it in livestock or land. There was, in those post-Reconstruction days, no thought of protecting an overwhelmingly rural, already armed citizenry from any threat of firearms registration, let alone confiscation. Nor was there a U.S. Supreme Court standard on abortion rights to defy. There was no mandate from the Arkansas Supreme Court to honor the terms of the state charter’s pledge of a free and adequate public education in any of the thousands — yes, thousands — of local school districts. The president of the United States was a white man chosen, mostly, by other white men. In no state of the nation could a woman cast a ballot in a federal election, and the notion of suppressing black votes by the legislature was laughable; African-American suffrage was managed, so to speak, at the local level.

What a difference 139 years can make. Seven score years ago it was the Democrats, newly restored to power, who ran the show, with a vengeance. This time it was the GOP in control, who ran it with discipline and determination.

The 89th General Assembly recessed on Tuesday, its labors completed save for the possibility of some veto override attempts when it returns in mid-May for adjournment. (Gov. Beebe, in tart language, disapproved of three Republican-sponsored measures that would shred the existing state Board of Election Commissioners). Its final, essential obligation was passage of the Revenue Stabilization Act, the blueprint for spending, in the fiscal year beginning July 1, the $5 billion General Revenue account — and billions more in federal funds.

Whether an expanded Medicaid program would have been cheaper, would have had a smaller impact on the national treasury that will bankroll much of it (as many experts contend) than the private (if federally funded) option insurance exchange is not immaterial. But neither should it be overlooked that an estimated quarter-million Arkansans previously without medical coverage can soon obtain it, and that those of us with health insurance can hope to see some relief from the cost-allocations by providers that have driven premiums steadily higher. It is, here as elsewhere, the country’s most significant step in decades in addressing the cost of health care. If the new Republican majorities in the Arkansas House and Senate succeeded mostly in re-branding “Obama-care” as something more palatable, well enough.

The political price of moving it through both chambers — and the vote was “close,” as Speaker Davy Carter sighed — was the Beebe administration’s implicit (privately explicit?) agreement to accept tens of millions of dollars in tax cuts through adjustments to the income and capital gains levies. Middle-income households will get some relief, yes, but nothing like the bonanza the affluent will enjoy.

The savings made possible to the state — at the expense of the feds — through the private option approach rather than a Medicaid expansion gave Mr. Beebe and the cooler heads in the Republican legislative leadership some breathing room. But the gamble is evident: The economy had better continue to improve, collections had best continue to meet or exceed projections. The Governor and many incumbent lawmakers will have left the building well before the tax cuts, to be phased in, reach their apex. If the worm turns and the economy sours — unemployment in Arkansas has rigidly held at about 7 percent — there will be little or no oxygen left beneath the dome.

And what if the economy soars? Will there then be a demand within the General Assembly for strategic investment by state government, especially higher education, to rival the fervor that carried the tax cuts to Mr. Beebe’s desk and his signature? Don’t count on it, regardless of which party is dominant. And in the meantime, keep your eye on college tuition: Loath to invite possible retaliatory budget-cutting, university trustees traditionally wait until the legislature has gone home before addressing the cost of a credit hour. A tip: It won’t go down.

There lies the failure of the 89th General Assembly, notwithstanding a sane health care policy, and it has nothing to do with a state Constitution that dates to the coal oil-lantern era. And nothing to do with the blizzard of social legislation — guns, abortion, school prayer, gay marriage — that the new majorities enacted (often with substantial Democratic support). Pistols and pelvic exams won’t determine the state’s trajectory. A first installment on the future, or rather the failure to pay it, is the lasting lament. It is no grand bargain.