Of course, the 2005 legislature accomplished some things. Every legislature does. Legislators cobbled together a budget to keep state government running for another two years, and without raising taxes. They took steps, however faltering, to continue compliance with court orders for improving the public schools. Here and there, an individual bill of merit made it all the way through the legislative process to become law, overcoming great obstacles on the way, like a salmon swimming upstream. One such bill will prevent constitutional officers, legislators and heads of state agencies from hiring relatives. Some truly awful bills were defeated — to put more government-sponsored prayer in the schools; to let legislators write the textbooks.
Still, the 2000 session was heavily negative. Much bad legislation was enacted; much more was introduced. If the Deltic Timber bill, the worst bill of the session, had passed the House as it did the Senate, the 85th General Assembly could have laid claim to being the most wretched since the days of racial segregation, when legislators took their orders from Bruce Bennetts and Orval Faubuses.
Leading the attack on good government was the Arkansas Times’ cover boy, Sen. Bob Johnson, D-Bigelow, a previously nondescript legislator who came to realize that term limits have made room for people like himself to play larger roles, especially if they bind themselves to special interests rich and powerful. Though Lake Maumelle is not in his district, Johnson was the chief sponsor of Deltic Timber Corporation’s bill to take the power of eminent domain away from Central Arkansas Water, the utility that protects the lake and the 360,000 Central Arkansans who drink of its waters. With millions of dollars to gain, Deltic essentially sought to remove Lake Maumelle’s defenses against pollution so that Deltic, a huge land owner and developer, could build a pricey subdivision on the lake. The company called its bill “The Water Quality Protection Act of 2005.”
The scheme sounded like something Mr. Burns of “The Simpsons” would dream up, but before CAW, city officials and private citizens could mobilize, Johnson had run the bill through the Senate. Twenty-two senators, almost a two-thirds majority, obediently voted to jeopardize a major public water supply rather than disappoint Deltic. Some observers believed Johnson had used hypnosis on his colleagues. Others suggested drugs.
There are still things up with which the people, unlike senators, will not put. Piddling in their drinking water is one of them. Outraged citizens brought pressure on the House of Representatives, and the House listened, including House Speaker Bill Stovall, D-Quitman, a mongoose to Johnson’s cobra. Though Deltic had 17 lobbyists working on 20 committee members, the House Committee on City, County and Local Affairs crushed Deltic’s predatory proposal.
There was no stopping another multi-million dollar giveaway, though. Once again exerting his strange mastery over his fellows, Johnson persuaded the Senate to pass a bill giving the present horse track and dog track owners in Arkansas exclusive rights to casino gambling in the state, and to do it without debate. The question of whether this fabulous franchise should be sold to the highest bidder, as other states have done, was not uttered aloud, perhaps for fear of offending the track owners, whose agents wrote the bill and watched the non-debate from the gallery. This time, the House went along with the Senate.
Gov. Mike Huckabee mostly kept his distance from the legislative proceedings, apparently believing it would be presumptuous for him to take part. He maintained that aloofness on the gambling bill. He said it was a terrible bill, listed very good reasons why he should veto it, declared that he wouldn’t veto it, and retired to his office to work on his diet. Huckabee is a Baptist preacher by training. Other Baptists who’ve opposed gambling bills furiously in the past were oddly complaisant on SB 999. Maybe they’re expending all their energy fighting gay marriage.
The legislature approved tax increment financing (TIF) legislation at the urging of private developers and city officials, thus enabling the diversion of money that rightly belongs to the schools into the construction of shopping centers, movie theaters, barber shops and what have you. Here was another sizeable forfeiture of public resources to people who claim to believe in the free market.
And the legislature couldn’t adjourn until a group of senators led by the ubiquitous Johnson had managed to get more money for local pork barrel projects at the expense of larger state needs.
Even in a session as uniformly dreary as this one, some moments stood out:
A resolution naming Charles Ormond “King of the World” was referred to an interim committee for study
Rep. Charles Ormond, D-Morrilton, proposed a constitutional amendment to create a state gambling corporation, with himself as president. He said he was incorruptible and that his salary in the new position would be less than what members of the state Workers Compensation Commission make, which is $104,000 a year. Surprisingly, the amendment failed.
Well, give them back to her
Arguments against fluoridation of water as a means of preventing tooth decay were effectively refuted in the ‘50s, but the 2005 legislature nonetheless rejected a bill that would have required more Arkansas water systems to fluoridate. Opponents blamed crime in Little Rock on the city’s fluoridated water, and one man said he had “the bones of a 98-year-old woman” after being accidentally sprayed with fluoride.
Too much Hutch
One Hutchinson in the legislature is more than ample, as taxpayers learned a few years back when Tim was a state representative. The House was saddled with two this year, both of Tim’s twin sons, Jeremy and Timothy, filling seats. The younger Hutchinsons continued the family tradition of misogynistic and irrelevant right-wing legislation, but unlike Daddy Tim and Uncle Asa, they are not products of Bob Jones University, the South Carolina bigots’ academy, so there may be something salvageable in them. Not enough to justify joint membership in the General Assembly, though.
Smiting the women
When they weren’t giving away public money to rich white men, legislators devoted much of their time to enacting anti-woman bills. Act 537 by Rep. Jeremy Hutchinson, R-Little Rock, requires parental consent before a minor can get an abortion. Act 1696 by Sen. Shawn Womack, R-Mountain Home, “the Unborn Child Pain Awareness and Prevention Act,” says that at least 24 hours before a woman can have an abortion, she must be advised of her “right” to see material describing fetuses feeling pain. Act 1176 by Sen. Tim Wooldridge, D-Paragould, allows the state to pursue criminal proceedings against mothers whose babies are born with illegal drugs in their system. There were more of the same sort.
Smiting the gays
Opposing a bill to prohibit discrimination against homosexuals, Rep. Timothy Hutchinson, R-Lowell, said there’s no law protecting overweight people, bald people and ugly people from discrimination, and “I fit into all three of those categories.” Bob Sells of Little Rock, who testified for the bill, claimed to be more overweight, balder and uglier than Hutchinson. Spectators called it a draw.
Jesus Jim
After demagoguing all session long about his bill to deny state services to illegal aliens (state officials said illegal aliens aren’t getting services anyway), Sen. Jim Holt, R-Springdale, withdrew the bill without a vote shortly before adjournment. But we’ll hear more anti-alien talk from Holt, a Religious Righter sometimes referred to as “Jesus Jim.” He’s planning a race for lieutenant governor.
Jesus Mark
Arkansas ACLU Director Rita Sklar, who testifies regularly in support of religious freedom, an unpopular topic with many legislators, was scolded more harshly than usual by Rep. Mark Martin, R-Prairie Grove, when she testified in opposition to a bill that would allow student-led prayers at public-school functions. Ignoring directions from the committee chairman to confine his remarks to the bill, Martin baited Sklar, who is Jewish, with questions like, “Is it fair to say that you’re not interested in religious liberty at all and that you’re interested in silencing one religion?”
Sympathy for the doctor, sometimes
One of the few pro-women bills considered by the legislature was HB 2782 by Rep. Joyce Elliott, D-Little Rock, which would require that hospitals inform rape victims about the emergency contraception pill, and either provide the pill to the victim or tell her where she can get it. If taken within 72 hours, the pill prevents pregnancy. The bill originally provided that doctors who didn’t comply with the law could lose their medical licenses, but members of the House Public Health, Welfare and Labor Committee said that was too harsh. To get the bill out of committee, Elliott had to agree to make fines the only penalties for noncompliant doctors. The same legislators were not so protective of doctors in the many anti-abortion bills they approved. Those bills send noncompliant doctors to prison. (Elliott’s amended bill failed anyway.)
Sympathy for the zealots
Sen. Jack Critcher, D-Batesville, introduced, then withdrew, a bill that would prevent punishment of any health care provider who refused treatment to a sick person, no matter the extremity of their condition or subsequent death, if it was a matter of “conscience.” The bad news is that Critcher was elected president pro tem of the Senate in 2007. The best 13 Democrats in the Senate voted for Critcher’s Republican opponent, if that gives you any idea of the quality of rising leadership. Over in the House, Rep. Benny Petrus, D-Stuttgart, is the favorite to be House speaker. He allowed his Capitol Hill apartment to be used as an after-work tavern operated by lobbyists.
No progress
Sen. Sue Madison, D-Fayetteville, tried to revive the Equal Rights Amendment, which failed in the Arkansas legislature in the ‘70s. It failed again in 2005. Looking on the bright side, women were allowed to retain the right to vote.
Who needs religious freedom?
Not the House of Representatives. Rep. Buddy Blair, D-Fort Smith, sponsored a resolution in support of the separation of church and state. Thirty-nine House members voted for it, 44 against and 17 didn’t bother.
Venus Williams would kick that caseworker’s butt
Rep. Bob Adams, D-Sheridan, explaining his bill to ban the state from placing children in “homosexual homes,” said the bill wasn’t aimed at people who were only suspected of being gay, such as “a man whose voice is high-pitched” or “one of the Williams sisters who plays tennis who bench-presses 300 pounds.” Rep. Jay Bradford, D-Pine Bluff, asked: “But who is to decide whether Venus Williams is a super athlete or a gay woman?” Adams said the Department of Human Services would “have to find evidence.” He said that would probably be up to a caseworker.
Oh, you mean that employer
While Rep. Dwayne Dobbins, D-North Little Rock, was speaking for his bill to give a tax break to providers of broadband Internet access, another member asked if Dobbins’ employer would benefit from his bill. Dobbins said he worked for the state of Arkansas, and the state would benefit. When another member repeated the question, Dobbins remembered that his fulltime employer is Alltel. And that Alltel would “absolutely” benefit from his bill.