Egged on by monied interests, the 2003 legislature perpetrated “tort reform” on the people of Arkansas, denying them the right to collect just compensation from corporate wrongdoers. So far as we know, the 2005 legislature, which convened this week, is not planning anything so pernicious. (Although the all-too-familiar woman-bashing of recent sessions has cropped up again with introduction of a bill to further restrict reproductive rights.)
With no organized mischief on the scale of tort reform in the works, the legislators of 2005 can turn their attention to real problems.
Most pressing of these is a court order the lawmakers are under to improve the state’s public school facilities — about $2.3 billion worth of improvement, according to a consultant’s estimate. Raising such an amount will not be easy, especially since the previous session raised taxes for schools, Medicaid and corrections. Still more money is wanted for all of these, as well as for higher education and highways. Governor Huckabee is correct in saying that Arkansas cannot live on K-12 alone, and the state Higher Education Department and the college and university presidents have at last agreed on a formula that could make the distribution of higher ed funds fairer and more logical than it has ever been. Now if only there is something to distribute.
The needs of Medicaid and the correctional system grow alarmingly from year to year. Maybe this is the session that forward-thinking legislators will undertake structural changes, rather than scratching around for a little more money that will be sufficient only until the next legislative session, if then. In the case of Medicaid, state government must find a way to use its purchasing power to hold down the cost of prescription drugs, as several other states have done. The Arkansas Department of Human Services tried such a plan a few years ago. Chain pharmacies managed to block that one in the courts, but there’s more than one way to skin a cat.
As for corrections, the “zero tolerance” philosophy and mandatory minimum sentences that were all the rage a few years back have proved their impracticality. All that results is the building of more prisons in a country already bristling with prisons. Most of the inmates are there because of drug-related offenses. Only revision of the drug laws, and alternatives to incarceration, can reverse the trend.
If the legislators do nothing else constructive, saving the state inheritance tax, which will otherwise be phased out, would put stars in their crown. It is the fairest tax on the books, paid by only a tiny percentage of the state’s richest residents, and it produces $20 million a year in badly needed state revenue. A no-brainer, as they say.