Knox Nelson will be home in Pine Bluff, tending the farm and his oil “bidness,” as he always put it, when the Arkansas state legislature convenes later this month. Not since 1957 has the legislature met without his formidable presence.
Everyone agrees that things won’t be the same at the Capitol without him. Nearly everyone adds, with all due respect, that things will be better.
That includes legislators like Senator Mike Beebe of Searcy, who professes his admiration of Nelson, but goes on to acknowledge that no man should ever have been able to wield the kind of power that Nelson did for the last couple of decades in the state Senate. Nelson alone controlled the disposition of proposed laws, determining the committees to which they were assigned, the time they would be brought to a vote, and whether they were voted on at all.
Max Howell of Jacksonville, who formed the other half of the Senate’s longtime ruling tandem, will return to begin his 44th year. But he is nearly 80, he has lost his position as chairman of the Joint Budget Committee, and younger senators suggest he no longer bothers them. “Max is finished,” claims one, though not for attribution, which suggests that as the Senate’s senior member, even an old, toothless, and Knox-less Max is not to be trifled with unnecessarily.
Still, influence will now be more diversified in the Senate, and younger, ambitious members will have the chance to carve their own niches. If nothing else, it will look better to schoolkids in the galleries if there is some sort of published agenda lending a semblance of openness to the proceedings, as there never was during the Nelson era.
Indeed, more openness may have been the message the voters were sending in Arkansas in the 1990 mid-term elections. Nelson was waxed by another incumbent, Jay Bradford, in a primary forced by court-ordered redistricting. Bradford is the nearest thing to a liberal in the Senate, not counting a couple of incoming members from Little Rock, Vic Snyder and John Pagan. Bradford has supported higher taxes, school health clinics, and tougher ethics and accountability laws. He once made a speech to the Pine Bluff Rotary Club attacking Wal-Mart for using temporary employees and not providing benefits, such as health insurance, and lived to tell about it. He was co-chairman of the campaign ethics law approved overwhelmingly by the voters in November. In 1988 he co-sponsored legislation for a stricter code of ethics for legislators and passed by public initiative.
Nelson epitomized the opposite. Not only did he rule the Senate with an iron fist, he represented the highway contractors’ association as executive director-consultant—paid lobbyist, in other words—a conflict of interest that remains legal in Arkansas despite all the new ethics laws.
Nelson is not the only departing figure. One-fifth of the Senate, seven of the 35 members, will not be returning. Some quit. Some, like Paul Benham of Marianna, were squeezed out by court-ordered redistricting to increase the chances of black representation. The Senate, which until this year had one black member, will now have three blacks. The House of Representatives will have four more blacks than it had last year.
Four senators met with defeat: Nelson, Benham, Kent Ingram of West Memphis, and Doug Brandon of Little Rock. They share few characteristics, but there are hints of a pattern. Nelson, Benham, and Ingram represented the Old South style of eastern Arkansas politics; they were white bosses. Nelson, Ingram, and Brandon formed a third of the nine-man coalition that refused in 1989 to go along with Governor Bill Clinton’s income tax reform bill. Since the state Constitution provides that income taxes can’t be raised without a three-fourths majority vote, those nine stopped the governor’s tax-for-education program in its tracks.
The freshman class in the Senate includes some intriguing personalities:
Vic Snyder is a doctor and lawyer who filed the lawsuit challenging Knox Nelson’s pride and joy—the law keeping corporate tax records secret, even for companies that keep part of the sales tax they collect. He promises a bill to re-open those records, and one providing for public recall of elected officials. He promises, in otheir words, to be noticed.
Pagan is a law professor who opposes the de21th penalty, favors abortion rights, and promises to carry on in the Ben Allen tradition: bellyaching about the tax exemptions for business that have been so Egallllar with legislatures past.
Bill Lewellen is a black lawyer from Marianna who ousted Benham, the longtime senator periodically written up in the statewide dailies for his racial pronouncements. Lewellen promises to fight for his dying Delta.
Jean Edwards of Pine Bluff is a black educator who will represent a new majority-black senate district formed by the redistricting that put neighbors Bradford and Nelson in the same district.
Mike Edwards of Marked Tree is a criminal defense lawyer who rode his motorcycle to Mexico this summer, saying he needed to broaden his perspective. He quotes William Faulkner. He was a place-kicker for the Arkansas State University Indians, and his teammates called him “Zone” — not for the end zone, but for occupying a different world. He is described as a maverick with a temper. He also is a good-sized man.
Mike Ross of Prescott is barely 30, a newcomer who cannot deny, though he would like to, that his primary political persona was formed when he was the statewide co-ordinator for the Michael Dukakis campaign in Arkansas in 1988.
Adding to the mix is the fact that the state will have its most over-qualified lieutenant governor ever this year, former congressman Jim Guy Tucker, and that one of the nominal tasks of the lieutenant governor is to preside over the state Senate. Nelson began presiding de facto in 1966 when the Democratic Senate distrusted the new Republican lieutenant governor—Maurice “Footsie” Britt. Senate sources say Tucker promises to revive the presiding role, maybe take an actual interest in legislation.
All this, combined with Bill Clinton’s hefty re-election margin, has raised hopes for a new, open, and progressive legislature — which would certainly be a departure from the past.
These optimistic stirrings have to do only with the Senate, of course: the House has 100 members and a history of operating without a rudder and in frequent chaos. Losing two of its sounder members — David Matthews and Gloria Cabe — to retirement or sabbatical may compound those tendencies. The election of Dr. Jim Argue, a new representative from Pulaski County in the progressive mold of Pagan and Snyder, will have a less pronounced effect, as Argue will be a freshman minority of one in a body of a recalcitrant 100.
But could it be that a new day is dawning in the upper chamber?
Senator Nick Wilson of Pocahontas can be forgiven if he demurs on this idea of a new era. It will be his second such era, you see. Wilson was elected in 1970, joining an ll-member freshman class that arrived with Governor Dale Bumpers — Young Turks ready to challenge the existing power structure.
Only Wilson, who hardly qualifies as a symbol of progressive government, is left from that promising freshman class.
“Some of ’em got beat; some quit; some died; one went to the federal penitentiary for a while,” Wilson says, recalling those Young Turks of two decades ago.
The legislature in 1971 passed the first income tax increase in the state’s history, repealed the antiquated liquor laws, reorganized state government, and created the statewide system of community colleges. “The most progressive legislature in the state’s history,” Ernest Dumas, associate editor of the Arkansas Gazette, called it.
One decade’s Young Turk is the Old Guard of the next. Indeed, the elder dragon himself, Max Howell, came to the Senate in 1947 as a post-war reformer.
“Reform-minded young golfers,” is how the irreverent Wilson refers to an emerging new order in the Senate—not the seven freshmen, but a loose cadre of seven or eight second-termers bidding to fill the power gap left by Nelson’s departure.
“Yeah, I golf,” laughs Beebe, the nearest thing to a leader of the cadre. “Hardin golfs. Harriman golfs. Fitch golfs. Steve Bell golfs. Malone likes to ride around in the cart.”
Hardin is Lu Hardin, a fortyish lawyer and teacher from Russellville, an earnest amiable opponent of abortion who was a law student under Clinton at the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and harbors gubernatorial ambitions of his own. Morrill Harriman of Van Buren, is also a fortyish lawyer, bright and analytical, and a former law student of Clinton.
Jon Fitch is a farmer from Madison County who sponsored a resolution, signed by more than half the Senate, to return a press table to the Senate floor this session. (Two years ago, the media rabble were banished to the gallery at Nelson’s insistence and with Wilson’s full support.) Steve Bell of Batesville, yet another 40-something attorney, fits the BeebeHarriman-Hardin mold.
David Malone is a fortyish law school official from the University of Arkansas, the academician of the group.
Indeed, it seems the Bubba image is abating in the Senate, to be replaced by regular Jays, Mikes, and Steves in Izods and cleated shoes. In legislatures past the premium was always on unrefined intelligence, dumb-like-a-fox savvy as epitomized by Nelson. Now, the tide is shifting to technical expertise and pragmatism, in the tradition of Clinton or David Pryor. There’s much to be said for dull competence, but even the new kids will admit that some of the flavor will be lost.
Beebe, Harriman, Hardin, Malone, Bell, and Fitch—not to mention freshmen like Pagan and Snyder—will try to do the right thing; they’ll actually read bills, but they aren’t ineffectual eggheads in the old tradition of former legislators Cal Ledbetter and Dr. Robert Johnston. As Wilson snidely intimates, they’ll play a round of golf. With the exception of Hardin, they’ll drink a beer or two, or a Scotch. They might even know how to order a good bottle of wine.
And they fret about the resourceful and sly Wilson, the one man they expect to try to take up where Nelson left off. Wilson looks like what he is, a manipulative and power-grabbing pol, the kind of fellow who will sneak a new building for his buddies at the Workers’ Compensation Commission into an obscure appropriation bill while the potential opponents are just making the turn after nine holes.
Wilson has his own clique, though it is dwindling at present. Veteran Bill Moore of El Dorado, a labor man, usually supports Wilson. Wayne Dowd of Texarkana, a savvy lawyer whom the young golfers would like to recruit, can usually be counted on to do Wilson’s bidding. George Hopkins of Malvern is a Wilson apprentice. Mike Bearden of Osceola and Allen Gordon of Morrilton are known to buddy up to Wilson at times.
Amid these cliques, but apart from them, is Senator Jerry Bookout. It’s his turn to be president pro tem of the Senate. The Jonesboro legislator is an engaging sort who has never really fit into a clique—which is a point in his, and the Senate’s, favor.
Bookout calls himself a facilitator, “the bridge between the old and the new.” He has quietly and methodically undercut Howell’s power. For one thing, he called a special meeting for December to consider rules and committee assignments. Before, the organizational meeting was Howell’s “duck dinner,’ now relegated to being a mere social event. Whether he will deal equally effectively with the Wilson faction is another question.
“People who know me know that I’m not going to try to be the next Knox Nelson,” Wilson avers. “A couple of the young golfers try to play people against me with that threat. But that’s OK. I try to play people against them with the same thing.”
The fact is that Wilson has one of the stronger pro-tax, pro-education voting records in the Senate, and he was grappling with Knox Nelson and Max Howell before Beebe, Harriman, and the rest entered their first primary.
Two years ago Wilson unsuccessfully proposed that Nelson be stripped of his single-handed control of the Senate calendar. The young golfers, more leery of Wilson than Nelson, wouldn’t go along. They figured Knox wouldn’t be around forever, and that it would be better to await his exit than climb into bed with Nick Wilson.
Wilson himself will admit to being vindictive. Ask John Lipton of Warren, who will be the speaker of the House. He crossed Wilson in a committee meeting and wound up having to devote the rest of the legislative session to saving the budgets of state facilities located in southern Arkansas.
What, then, might we see in the way of laws from the new Senate, assuming the unchanged House of Representatives would fall in line, a massive assumption?
For one thing, Clinton’s 1988 income tax reform bill, which would have taken lowest-income taxpayers off the rolls and applied a higher across-the-board rate to high personal and corporate incomes, could pass the Senate today. It passed the House in 1989 (when Nelson, Ingram, and Brandon blocked it in the Senate), but only with the precise minimum number of votes required, 75. And two of those came from the departing Cabe and Matthews.
A tax increase? Maybe. Clinton may not propose it in the regular session because of new federal tax increases; but the Senate’s new order, combined with the avowed tax-and-spend propensity of Wilson and his small group, will vote for it whenever it comes up.
School-based health clinics that dispense contraceptives? The Senate favored it in 1989; the House didn’t. Current law leaves it to local school board option. If the House tries to restrict that law, Bradford and other senators will fight to maintain the option—convinced that the election returns of 1990 ratified them. Clinton favors these clinics.
Also ratified by the voters, perhaps unintentionally, was the concept of early childhood intervention, meaning state government initiatives to reach underprivileged children early, and in the home. Efforts will be made to expand the so-called HIPPY program to train poor parents to teach their kids at home.
The Arkansas Business Council is championing the administrative merger of community colleges and vocational-technical training schools, on the rationale that the state needs to be able to do two things for unemployed, undereducated adults: provide them with general education while training them for specific jobs. While Nick Wilson has taken an interest in the issue, it’s symptomatic of his intimidation of the young golfers that other legislators suspect that his real interest was rolling out the pork-barrel for the Pocahontas area — meaning more money for the vo-tech school in his district.
Representative Jodie Mahony of El Dorado, an independently wealthy iconoclast whose commitment to education is as strong as anyone’s, will offer no fewer than 33 education bills in this session. One would require the phasing out of athletic deficits at colleges and universities. Another would require a 2.0 grade point average for high school graduation.
Typically, the unpredictable Mahony is also threatening a package of bills to amend the Freedom of Information Act, a proposal certain to incur the wrath of the newspaper columnists, a prospect that has never bothered him.
Freshman Vic Snyder will propose repealing the corporate tax secrecy law. Snyder also will propose a law allowing voter recall of public officials. No such provision currently exists. The problem is that voter recall would emanate from petitions with signatures of voters. As Secretary of State W. J. “Bill” McCuen demonstrated on the 1990 lottery petition effort, he can’t keep up with all the petitions, much less screen out forgeries.
In addition, a road program is promised, now that the Highway Commission has confirmed what we already knew — that Arkansas roads don’t have enough traffic to make a toll system workable for highway financing.
A federal increase in the gasoline tax — plus the Persian Gulf crisis and the subsequent increase in gas prices—has complicated matters. But highway officials still want a nickel-per-gallon increase. Clinton wants to tie the tax increase to a bond issue, so the state could immediately sell bonds and start widening key roads to four lanes, projects already underway in neighboring industrial-development competitors such as Tennessee, Mississippi, and Louisiana.
Legislators love roads. The tax-bond proposal will likely pass, especially since it would require voter approval.
Representative John Miller of Melbourne, the nearest thing to a leader in the House, will propose again that the state begin construction on Big Mac II, a multiagency office complex west of the Capitol. Complicating matters is that Little Rock interests may seek state help in the financing of the proposed Diamond Center, a sports arena surrounded by a library, museum, and cultural center. Resentment of Little Rock remains strong at the legislature, whose members grudgingly voted more than $100 million off the top of the state treasury last year for the embattled Little Rock schools.
The governor, ever aware of political trends, has promised special attention this year to the environment and public health. He will propose legislation to encourage conservation and recycling, and a much needed new system of solid waste disposal. He wants to find a way to extend health insurance to those who cannot get it.
But the big question is a real tax increase — not the promised fair-minded income tax reform measure, but an absolute increase in the sales tax. A penny increase — voted down in 1989 — would net around $200 million. It is essential if the state is to raise teacher pay.
A few days after winning 57.7 percent in his race for a fifth term as governor, Clinton propped his leg across the arm of his chair and talked about what it all meant.
He had referred to a mandate, though it was not clear what the voters had intended to mandate.
“I think the voters voted for open, accountable government,” Clinton said, mentioning Bradford’s defeat of Nelson and the overwhelming approval for public initatives on ethics in 1988 and 1990.
But what about taxes?
Despite intense eleventh-hour pressure by Sheffield Nelson, Clinton never promised not to raise taxes.
Two weeks before the election, Clinton’s pollster asked respondents if they had an immediately occurring negative feeling about Clinton, and what it was. Four percent said he tries to raise taxes too often. A week later, after President Bush and Congress put together their federal tax increases, that percentage jumped to 17. A week later, when Nelson unveiled his “raise and spend” television commercial, the percentage jumped to 30.
Those kind of numbers would scare hell out of any politician. Even so, 70 percent didn’t think of taxes when asked to name something they didn’t like about Clinton. Indeed, the opposition to a state tax increase for education may be more vocal than pervasive.
State attitudes are totally at the mercy of how the federal tax increases are perceived, Clinton points out. But already he is tryingto shift those perceptions. If you really break down the federal increases, he explains, you will find that lowincome Arkansans were not especially hard hit. Only the gasoline tax hurt them. Otherwise, the hardest-hit were highincome taxpayers. Medicaid benefits, so vital to the underclass in Arkansas, were actually increased.
“It may just be a case of educating people about what happened in Congress,” Clinton claims.
Ignoring the crucial tax issue, Clinton sees strong public sentiment for his education reforms—school health clinics, earlychildhood intervention, literacy, and adult education.
“Oh, sure, all of that was on the table in my race. It was on the table in the Bradford race. It was on the table in the race to fill Bill Ramsey’s seat in northwest Arkansas. The commitment of the people is strong and it crosses party lines or philosophical lines.”
Could it be a magic moment in the state’s history — a time for a fifth-term governor to put forth new, innovative, ideas to meet with legislative favor, because the voters had demanded them at the polls?
“It all depends on the feds,” Clinton responds tepidly. Then, brightening: “I think this Senate, and maybe the whole legislature, will be the most progressive since the 1970s, and maybe the most independent ever.”
By independent, he means less behold to the special business interests. Again, the absence of Knox Nelson is encouraging: he was an agent of the business interests, not just the highway contractors or his wholesale oil business, but the Arkansas State Chamber of Commerce and the Arkansas Power and Light Company. He controlled the legislative process in their behalf.
The new kids — Pagan, Snyder, Lewellen, Argue — won their races not only without the help of these special business interests, but despite their active opposition.
By progressive, the governor means less obstructionist to his interests. He also believes the new legislature might be more receptive to higher taxes.
Nick Wilson agrees, and Jay Bradford has vowed that if it comes to it, he will be the Senate sponsor of a tax increase bill: “I may be killing myself by saying that, but we’ve got to have it.”
Obviously, taking out Knox Nelson can give a person a healthy dose of moxie, and maybe even some lasting political courage. The question is whether Bradford is an isolated case or the harbinger of new, better days in the much-maligned Arkansas ledge. Over 70 to 80 days this winter, we will begin to find out.