We’re one month into the era of divided government in Arkansas, where the Legislature is controlled by Republicans and the Governor’s Mansion by Democrats. So far, the partisan temperature remains at a comfortable level – warm enough to allow a vigorous debate and keep things moving, but not so hot as to cause an engine shutdown like in Washington, D.C.
We’ve seen competing beliefs on charter schools and school choice. We’ve seen legislators pointedly but respectfully question the administration on the state incentives that will be offered that big new steel mill. We’ve even seen a willingness by some Republican legislators and Gov. Beebe to at least try to meet somewhere in the middle on that most contentious of issues, Medicaid expansion.
Temperatures will no doubt get hotter, particularly on Medicaid, as this year’s session shifts out of first gear. But, for now, state government won’t be as bitterly partisan as Washington has become, for several reasons.
One is the fact that there is less of a cultural divide between most state legislators than there is between congressmen representing very different states. As a rule, we’re more alike in Arkansas than different, which is why a bill that lets churches choose whether or not to allow guns inside their buildings sailed through the Legislature this week. In Washington, that would have been a fight.
The stakes are lower in Little Rock, too. State legislators deal in a few billions, not trillions. They don’t have to worry about national security.
Importantly, state legislators live much more normal lives than members of Congress, and the governor is nothing like the president. They’re not rock stars. They generally don’t appear in the national media unless they say something monumentally stupid or controversial. If 10 constituents take the time to call them about an issue, most figure they ought to pay attention.
Thanks to term limits, state legislators serve only six years in the House and eight in the Senate. Unlike members of Congress, who live and breathe this stuff, state legislators spend only four or five months every two years in session, not counting a lot of between-session committee meetings.
In other words, they basically serve for a while and go home. There is less time to be corrupted and less time to become partisan hacks. If they want to get anything done in their time at the Capitol, they can’t make enemies.
True, there is a political society in Little Rock. Legislators become lobbyists, or they run for state constitutional offices. There’s some money floating around for future campaign donations as different interests jockey for influence.
I don’t mean to paint the state Capitol as a stainless bastion of democratic virtue. But Little Rock certainly is no Washington, where congressmen stay in office for decades and are immersed in an environment corrupted by money, media hype, and partisan nonsense.
Unlike Washington, the incentives here at least are related to doing your constitutional duty. In the state Legislature, being a jerk means your bills don’t pass and you waste a lot of time driving back and forth to Little Rock. In Washington, being a jerk gets you on TV. It doesn’t make you a better legislator, but then, that hardly matters when Congress can’t get anything done, anyway.
Even the way state legislators go about their business at the Capitol is more conducive to civil discourse than what happens in Washington. State legislators walk the halls unaccompanied by aides – because a lot of them don’t have one. In fact, they mostly share a staff that serves the entire Legislature on a nonpartisan basis. They stop and chat in the rotunda. Unlike in Congress’ regal and impersonal committee hearings, state legislators sit side by side at a table.
All of those systemic arrangements remain more or less constant. However, one other factor does change: the people Arkansans elect. Beebe and a lot of legislators – including this year’s Republican leaders – are pragmatic problem solvers, not ideological bomb throwers. That means things get done in Little Rock with, usually, not that much drama. State government is often kind of boring, really.
Let’s keep it that way.
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Steve Brawner is an independent journalist in Arkansas. His blog — Independent Arkansas — is linked at arkansasnews.com. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org