Representative Brit McKenzie (R)

BRIT HAPPENS: Rep. McKenzie blew lots of hot air, but his resolution tuckered out like a silent fart.

The legislative special session, which finished up business yesterday, primarily focused on yet another round of tax cuts, along with wrapping up the Game and Fish Commission budget kerfuffle. But legislators love to grandstand, so we also got a couple of meaningless House resolutions attacking a pair of popular ballot initiatives.

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The resolutions encouraged voters not to back the measures. One would reverse the state’s abortion ban. The other would require private schools receiving public funding to be held to the same standards as public schools, and would also require the state provide additional education services.

It was a strange gambit — do legislators really think people want to be told how to vote by a bunch of politicians soaking up per diem cash at the Capitol?

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If anything, it seemed wildly counterproductive as a political strategy. In the House committee meeting on Tuesday, citizens lined up to defend the ballot measures, and Democratic lawmakers got a chance to do the same on the House floor on Wednesday. It amounted to free publicity for the two campaigns just as they’re in the homestretch of their efforts to collect signatures. To make the ballot this November, 90,704 registered Arkansas voters must sign each respective petition by July 5.

Rep. Deborah Ferguson (D-West Memphis) made this very point on the House floor, noting that she was pleased the measure to expand abortion rights was getting some extra airtime: “I’m glad the resolution was brought, because I want the public to be aware that canvassers are gathering signatures now to pass the amendment.”

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“The resolution absolutely fired up our volunteers, who were outraged that the Legislature would try to interfere in their constitutionally protected right to engage in direct democracy,” said Rebecca Bobrow, director of strategy for Arkansans for Limited Government, the group backing the abortion rights amendment. “Our volunteers were also thrilled to see that the Legislature seems to be very nervous that we’re going to qualify for the ballot — hard not to notice they framed the resolution as a directive to vote ‘no’ rather than a directive not to sign. We’re hopeful that the conversation around these silly resolutions inspires more people to come out and sign the petition during our super signing events across the state this weekend.”

The anti-abortion resolution passed easily in the House on Wednesday, but surprisingly, the amendment attacking the education ballot initiative was pulled and never voted on.

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Rumors were swirling about why this might be, so I called Rep. Brit McKenzie (R-Rogers), the resolution’s sponsor, that afternoon. He told me he wanted to gather his thoughts and was on the road, and that he’d get back to me with a written statement by email.

That sounded good to me! But he never emailed. Perhaps that’s just as well, as the quotes that he offered other outlets were such incoherent gobbledygook that I could only stare at them in wonder.

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Here’s how the D-G struggled through making sense of what McKenzie said:

McKenzie said his goal was to spark a public debate about the amendment, but he withdrew the resolution to avoid drawing attention away from the group leading the campaign against the amendment.

 

“I don’t want to distract from that with, you know, media headlines that either have a bias or don’t,” McKenzie said. “I think it’s important for those leaders in the grassroots and those leaders in the policy spaces to command every little bit of attention they can between now and the end of the ballot (petition) cycle.”

So. He wanted to draw attention but didn’t want to draw attention to it? Or something?

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I don’t think I’m fluent in whatever language McKenzie is speaking, but my interpretation here is that he belatedly realized the obvious issue that his resolution had backfired. I think that’s the simplest theory. Other ideas floating around the Capitol: Perhaps there were some Republicans squishy on LEARNS who did not want to go on record opposing the amendment; maybe Attorney General Tim Griffin didn’t love that the resolution said the ballot title was “misleading” given the fact that he’d certified it as being sufficiently clear; maybe there was some legal issue with the inevitable lawsuits. But that’s all just speculation.

Asked by the Arkansas Advocate, House Speaker Matthew Sheppard said, “I don’t think that should be interpreted as a weakness in the majority of the House’s support for the LEARNS Act. I think it’s just a combination of factors.”

At least Sheppard elected to respond with nothing as opposed to incoherent nonsense.

“We were happy to have the opportunity to tell the straight truth about what the Educational Rights Amendment does and why it’s so important, and the resolution gave the media another opportunity to tell that story,” said Bill Kopsky, treasurer for the For AR Kids ballot committee, the group backing the amendment.

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“The facts are that the AR Educational Rights Amendment is a simple proposal that requires any school receiving public financing to follow the same standards and to create an opportunity for every Arkansas student to have access to the most powerful education tools we know about,” Kopsky said. “Access to quality special education, early childhood education, afterschool and summer programs and support for kids in poverty to achieve an adequate education should be rights for all Arkansas students.”

Kopsky said his group was glad that McKenzie withdrew his amendment. “There were several assertions in the resolution that were demonstrably false,” he said. “We think Arkansas voters are smart enough to know how they want to vote without politicians telling them. The claim that he filed the resolution to create public debate is laughable — we’ve offered to debate the opposition to the Arkansas Educational Rights Amendment numerous times since the campaign started and they’ve refused. We’ve also held dozens of town halls to answer questions from voters and they have not appeared at a single one to ask a question.”

As for the anti-abortion resolution that actually passed, Bobrow said it revealed the Legislature’s callous attitude toward both reproductive rights and direct democracy. “The extremists in the Arkansas Legislature, once again, have proved that they are uncaring, untruthful, and undemocratic,” she said. “The resolution is a clear attempt by lawmakers to weaponize private, intimate healthcare decisions that should be left between patients and their doctors. It misleads the public about the contents of the Arkansas Abortion Amendment and interferes in Arkansas’s constitutionally protected democratic process. The sponsors of this resolution know that the Arkansas Abortion Amendment will pass. They have decided that lying to the public is their best chance at stopping it. Reasonable Arkansans can see through this politicking.”