Time to welcome our new overlords.
We kid. Arkansas may be the new Oklahoma, but we’ll still be here, raising hell. There’s no crying in baseball or politics. We are under no illusions that our newspaper can stop the red wave in Arkansas. That doesn’t mean we won’t be shouting.
We’ve been shouting, after all, for a long time. Part of this paper’s lineage is the Arkansas Gazette, which committed itself to pushing back against demagogues with a D by their name. Our purpose has never been partisan politics. Yes, we expect the new era of Republican one-party rule in the state to do all manner of harm. That’s a sobering thought, but it’s also not the end of the world.
There’s still a state to run — schools, highways, the criminal justice system, social services. Sometimes mainstream Republicans will be on the right side of maintaining health care coverage for the state’s poorest citizens; sometimes Tea Party Republicans will be allies in pushing back against the good ol’ boy network at the University of Arkansas or advocating for more transparency in government. And sometimes, of course, the GOP majority will be plain wrong. Sen. Joyce Elliott (D-Little Rock) has the right rallying cry: “I know about being in the minority! So, all I can say is — bring it on!”
This is our home, and the fact that our neighbors voted differently from us doesn’t change that. Part of loving this place, for us, is shining light on the leaders — regardless of party — who would take us backward, who appeal to our ugliest instincts, who protect the powerful and trample on the vulnerable. It’s calling the liars and the corrupt and the bullies to account. It is digging for the truth that might be buried; it is speaking for those who might not be heard and telling the stories that might not be told.
A little after midnight after the election, outside of the GOP victory party at the Embassy Suites, a couple dozen Republican men in suits — lawmakers, politicos, lobbyists — lit up cigars. It was Wednesday, a new day in Arkansas, and they were ready to get to work.
Time for us to get to work, too. Here’s a look at the stories to watch.
The lonely crowd
Here’s the thing. Republicans have a clear majority in Arkansas, there’s no doubt about that. But more than 40 percent of the state’s residents lean toward the D side of the aisle. And there are pockets of the state where Democrats are still the majority. For the most part, these folks are not going to get what they want politically for the next two years, but their voices deserve to be heard, and they deserve vigorous representation from what’s left of the Democratic Party.
Being the minority party is no fun (just ask Arkansas Republicans of yesteryear). Well, boo hiss. Elected representatives who are worth a damn do their best work when the chips are down.
To name just a few: House Minority Leader Eddie Armstrong (D-North Little Rock) is a strong-willed leader who will hold the caucus together. Rep. Joe Jett (D-Success) is a well-liked, no-nonsense political operator who’s a master of the backroom deal. Rep. Warwick Sabin (D-Little Rock) is a whip-smart, principled progressive who has managed to build coalitions with unlikely conservative partners before. Rep. Deborah Ferguson (D-West Memphis) has been a fearless and pragmatic voice of reason. Recently elected Rep. Clarke Tucker (D-Little Rock) is a rising star who Gov. Mike Beebe called the “best political talent of his generation that I have personally witnessed.” Sen. Joyce Elliott always has been, and always will be, a powerhouse.
We’ll have our disagreements with all of them, but our point here is that there is political talent on the smaller side of the aisle. To be frank, in the old days of Democratic dominance, there were too many lazy hacks in the legislature. Democrats are the minority now, perhaps for a very long time. Now is the time to be hungry. Now is the time for creativity, guts, procedural maneuvering, deal-making, cajoling. Now is the time to outhustle and outwork the majority, which will have every advantage.
Everyone understands that the Democrats are going to lose more battles than they will win. That doesn’t mean that the minority party has to be irrelevant. They can make gains, inch by inch, in committees, in backrooms, in the public dialogue and debate. Sometimes the only option will be powerful and vocal resistance, to go down fighting. That matters, too.
Most Capitol observers are already writing the Democrats out of the story. The question is whether they can find a way, against all odds, to write themselves in.
Just because Arkansas appears bound for one-party rule does not mean politics will be drama-free. Republicans are dominant, but dig a little deeper and you can almost see a three-way split in the legislature: one-third Tea Party Republicans, one-third establishment Republicans, and one-third Democrats. (An interesting tidbit from an NBC exit poll, by the way: Arkansas voters were split into thirds on their views of the Tea Party, between favorable, neutral and unfavorable.)
One of the most fascinating subplots on election night was how distraught some GOP lawmakers from the establishment wing were despite the sweep of victories. Scanning the faces at the Embassy Suites you could find prominent Republicans with the same white-as-a-ghost look on their faces as the stunned Democrats over in downtown Little Rock. The Tea Party ascendency is a threat to them, too.
That’s the story of Arkansas politics for at least the next two years (and maybe the next few decades): Who will come out on top in intra-party squabbles within the GOP?
Democrats have an interesting role to play here. For the most part, yes, they will be the noisy resistance, protesting legislative actions that they’re ultimately powerless to stop. But there will be opportunities to build coalitions on certain issues.
In many areas, the Republicans will be united (don’t expect any moderate GOP voices on guns, gays or abortion anytime soon). But other issues will find them bitterly divided, none more so than the private option, the state’s unique version of Medicaid expansion. That one gets the most attention, but other issues will likely emerge. Just how far should tax cuts go? What is a responsible approach to state budgeting? How much help should local interests get from state government? What is the role of federal money in a state budget? How much money should go to higher education? What’s the future of Common Core? What is the role of the legislature with respect to powerful interests in the state, from the University of Arkansas to big business to medical providers?
The lines between these two wings in the GOP are blurry and there will be some overlap depending on the issues. But, broadly speaking, two camps have emerged. Outside groups like Conduit for Action provide institutional support and campaign funds for the Tea Party wing, while old-guard groups like the Chamber of Commerce back the establishment GOPs. (If you want an idea: Walton money backed not only a primary opponent of Tea Party stalwart Rep. Jim Dotson (R-Bentonville), but even a Democratic opponent in the general election; Dotson still won re-election.)
We’ve already seen Tea Partiers contemplate challenging their more moderate colleagues who dominate the legislative leadership. A few days after the election, hard-right Sen. Gary Stubblefield (R-Branch) announced he’d try to unseat Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Searcy), an architect of the private option, as Senate president pro tem. Stubblefield later backed off the challenge. There were post-election whispers that Conduit for Action was pushing a similar challenge for Speaker of the House, but the GOP leadership will remain in place there as well — for now.*
At times, the complaints from the establishment wing are as much about competence or leadership style as ideology. We heard from dozens of prominent Republicans who told us privately that they voted for Nate Steel for attorney general over Leslie Rutledge. Of course they were mum publicly, and Rutledge won, though by a smaller margin than other statewide Republicans on the ballot. Honestly, it might have been even closer in a straw poll at the Embassy Suites GOP party. (Likewise with newly elected Treasurer Dennis Milligan, who chose a Krispy Kreme donut shop as a meeting place to blackmail his primary opponent, well-liked establishment GOP Rep. Duncan Baird (R-Lowell); the threat, based on a less-than-damning video, enraged many lawmakers within the party.)
The division has become increasingly personal. Hearing Republicans in Arkansas — from either side of the divide — complain about other Republicans in Arkansas sounds a lot like the way they used to talk about Democrats.
This is, of course, the natural result of success. The Republican Party is bigger and has more power than ever before. That breeds conflict and division.
Democrats will seek to use that conflict to find their own space for deals. They can, with luck and pluck, win on a few issues or contain the damage at the margins. But the battles between R and D will often barely register. The future of Arkansas will be decided by R vs. R.
The unthinkable option: Will the newly elected legislature kick 200,000 people off their health insurance?
Make no mistake: One clear and immediate result of the election is that the private option — the state’s unique version of Medicaid expansion, which uses funds available via the federal Affordable Care Act to purchase private health insurance for low-income Arkansans — is in real trouble. More than 200,000 Arkansans have gained insurance via the policy since 2013, meaning the state’s rate of uninsured persons has been cut in half. (Here’s Dave’s more detailed roundup on where the private option stands.)
According to various Republican insiders and players in his inner circle, Republican governor-elect Asa Hutchinson, who did a lot of hedging on the issue during the campaign, had planned to continue the policy and would sign it if the private option made it to his desk. The problem is in the legislature, where reauthorization requires three-fourths approval from both the Arkansas House and Senate. The private option passed by bipartisan supermajority in both chambers both in 2013 and 2014, but just barely, and only after long and protracted political struggles. Getting over the 75 percent threshold for a contentious policy will always be an incredibly steep climb.
That steep climb just got a lot steeper. Some even fear it’s impossible. The math is now brutal — the Senate, where the private option passed with no votes to spare in 2014 — is likely now four votes short. A fifth vote is in jeopardy because Sen. Michael Lamoureux (R-Russellville), a strong supporter of the private option, has been tapped to be Hutchinson’s new chief of staff. The House may be an even harder slog. The private option passed with one vote to spare last year in the House; now Republicans have gained 13 seats, most of whom expressed opposition to the private option during the campaign. Vote counts in the House are unpredictable and fluid, but the private option might well be 10 votes or more in the hole.
One hope for the private option is that Hutchinson will be able to persuade Republican lawmakers to come on board in ways that a Democratic governor could not. But that assumes that Hutchinson is willing, as Mike Beebe was, to aggressively push all of his chips onto the table to get the private option passed. Ever cautious, Hutchinson said last week that he wouldn’t announce his own position until late January. He said he’ll be studying the policy, but he’ll also be keeping an eye on which way the wind is blowing in the legislature. Many in his inner circle believe that he has to have the hundreds of millions in federal money coming in with the private option for budgetary reasons, but Hutchinson is a careful politician who may decide the politics are just too ugly. There’s no guarantee Hutchinson the Hedger will lead the charge.
Even if he does, there’s no guarantee he can actually convince enough Republicans to come aboard. Remember, many of them campaigned explicitly against the private option. Outside groups, lawmakers and activists opposed to the private option will be threatening any apostates with a primary challenge. Many Republican lawmakers either won’t be moved by pressure from Hutchinson, or will face even greater pressure from their Tea Party base.
Things are looking so bleak that some Capitol observers are declaring the private option dead — but it’s worth noting that the private option (and before that, Medicaid expansion) has been declared dead many, many times before. As difficult as it is to see how the policy could possibly get the supermajorities needed to continue, it’s equally difficult to see how the legislature would kill the private option.
Just because the aginners have enough votes to block something doesn’t mean they have enough votes to pass something in its place. Even now, they’re still likely in the minority. What they have is a constitutional tool: They can block the entire Department of Human Services budget (including funding for children, the disabled and the elderly in nursing homes) unless they get their way on ending the private option. Clearly there are some diehard opponents more than willing to do so, but others may be uncomfortable with this particular game of chicken.
Meanwhile, it works both ways: If a rump group can block the DHS budget unless the private option is eliminated, a rump group could also block the budget unless the policy is kept. There are only 36 Democrats left in the House, for example, but that’s more than enough to beat the aginners at their own game. The incentives seem to be lining up to at least get very close to the edge of this cliff.
One way out would be some sort of compromise. Proponents will look for moderate tweaks and new policy reforms (maybe even a new name) to give cover and bring the soft nays aboard. Of course, the strongest opponents of the private option will be unsatisfied with those tweaks and will say so, loudly. Their version of compromise during the last legislative session was no comprimise at all: kill the policy, only with a slightly later end date. We’ll probably hear some version of that suggested very soon. If the aginners start talking about the best way to “transition” or “wind down,” rest assured: That means ending the private option. It means low-income people in Arkansas once again have no options for affordable health insurance.
Ending the private option would mean kicking more than 200,000 people off their coverage, rejecting billions in federal dollars, and screwing hospitals that have already saved tens of millions in savings on uncompensated care. That’s to say nothing of the tens of millions that would be immediately lost in the state budget — in Medicaid savings, lower state spending on uncompensated care, revenues from the state tax on private option premiums and revenues from state taxes on the federal dollars flowing into the state.
Campaigning against Obamacare is a clear winner, but taking people’s health insurance away and saying no thanks to billions of dollars is easier said than done politically. It’s a big reason why, for all of the shouting, the private option survived last year.
The nation will be watching Arkansas. Home to an innovative and unique version of Medicaid expansion, attention will now center on whether it will become the first state to implement expansion only to abandon it. The state was one of the few in the South to do right by its neediest citizens; now it may be sending out more than 200,000 letters telling those citizens that their coverage is gone.
Paying for the future: Will tax cuts trump the needs of public schools?
This January, as the 2015 legislative session begins in Little Rock, keep one eye on what’s happening in the statehouse in Topeka. That’s when Kansas Gov. Sam Brownback will present a budget to his state’s legislature — a budget that now faces a shortfall of $279 million** over the next seven months, due to aggressive tax cuts championed by Brownback. The Republican took office in 2010 with promises that vigorous economic growth would proceed naturally from the institution of his austere budget plan. But the cuts, which have mostly gone to wealthier households and business owners, have yet to create a significant boost in new jobs when compared to surrounding states.
Instead, Kansas is having trouble paying its bills, which means public spending must be cut dramatically — and immediately. The shortfall of $279 million is only for the remainder of the state’s current fiscal year, which ends in June 2015. Projections indicate Kansas must cut an additional $436 million in the following fiscal year.**
K-12 education is in an especially dire place, with the state recently under order from its own Supreme Court to provide more funding to low-income schools. But despite a huge $330 million revenue shortfall last fiscal year, Brownback and his Republican legislature remain convinced the solution is … more tax cuts. After last Tuesday’s election, the Kansas Speaker of the House said, “We don’t have a revenue problem; we have a spending problem.”
Will Arkansas’s newly empowered Republican majority take us down the same road? It’s too early to tell what the Hutchinson administration is going to be like, but we know that lowering taxes will be a big part of its story. In his first press conference, the governor-elect responded to a question about impending budget decisions by saying, “Obviously, tax cuts are important to me. My highest priority is the middle class tax cut — reducing the tax rate that I talked about during the campaign.”
Yet Hutchinson has a pragmatic streak as well. To his credit, he admitted before the election that his pledge to cut taxes by $100 million might have to be delayed for a later fiscal year in light of the immediate realities of the Arkansas budget. State revenue has grown more slowly than expected in the past few months — and, more importantly, the needs of the state are legion. The jail and prison system has been pushed to the breaking point due to chronic underfunding and stricter rules for parole; correction officials say addressing the problem will require building a new prison with a price tag of $100 million. State employees, who have long been denied a raise, are getting a small one from outgoing Gov. Mike Beebe; a 1 percent cost of living adjustment will cost $2.7 million this year alone.
The most urgent deficiencies are found in our public schools, which already absorb nearly half of all state revenue. The chronically troubled teacher insurance system simply can’t be fixed without a major new investment of cash, which would run into the tens of millions of dollars. A legislative committee just recommended the state boost its funding for teacher salaries — shamefully low in many districts — by about $16.5 million. A one-time reservoir of facilities money used for fixing school buildings in critical disrepair has now run dry, leaving the state on the hook for perhaps $60 million in the coming year. Many rural schools lack sufficient broadband Internet, and even if the legislature rewrites law (as it should) to allow districts to connect to the state-owned fiber optic network, ARE-ON, building connective infrastructure will still cost millions. Arkansas’s pre-K system has gone without a cost-of-living increase for years and must receive additional funds this year to continue operating at its current volume and quality. Hutchinson has promised he’ll fully fund the existing pre-K program — but it remains to be seen which will take priority, preschoolers or tax cuts.
Meanwhile, elsewhere on the education front, expect the 2015 session to also include talk of two other issues not directly related to spending: Common Core and charter schools. Tea Party conservatives want to dismantle the higher academic standards dictated by Common Core, while establishment Republicans generally like them — another intra-party flash point that may mirror GOP squabbling over the private option. The Hutchinson administration is sure to push to allow more charters in the state.
Still, the biggest question in education is one of funding: Will the state hold firm on its commitment to pay for an adequate and equitable school system? The answer depends on whether Republicans can curb their appetite for slashing taxes. One explanation for Gov. Beebe’s sky-high popularity ratings is that he’s always been much more interested in keeping the budget stabilized than investing energy in either cutting taxes or expanding services. His stewardship of the budget before and during the recession spared Arkansas the pain of drastic cuts seen in many other states, even while public education continued to make steady, incremental improvements. What Arkansas really needs — a boldly progressive tax policy that funds even better public schools — it won’t be getting from Hutchinson, but then it didn’t get that from Beebe, either.
If Hutchinson really wants to be a pragmatic, fiscally conservative governor, he’s got a model to follow. He’d do well to study his predecessor’s popularity as he sets his own priorities for the next four years.
The intrigue has already begun on the new Asa Hutchinson regime. Will term-limited Rep. Duncan Baird wind up at the Department of Finance and Administration? Which former staffer for the Farm Bureau will be tabbed for the Arkansas Department of Environmental Quality? Will Democratic hack Tracy Steele, a quid pro quo pro if there ever was one, get a cushy public job in exchange for his (meaningless) endorsement of Hutchinson? Will term-limited Rep. John Burris end up at the Department of Human Services? (Can you imagine the head of arch-enemy Sen. Bryan King of Green Forest exploding if Burris, one of the key architects of the private option, was showing up to committee meetings to testify on behalf of DHS?)
The big one, since we’ve suffered through the mystery meat at the Governor’s Mansion: Will former Capital Hotel Chef Lee Richardson be Asa’s new First Chef?
OK, but everyone knows that the true media bias is that we just care about ourselves. So what we really want to know is who the new governor’s spokesperson will be. Matt DeCample was one of outgoing Gov. Beebe’s secret weapons, a smooth politico who could channel Beebe’s brain (if not Beebe’s voice “like molasses” that the New York Times swooned over).
DeCample was plucked from KATV, Channel 7. Where will Hutchinson go searching for the Voice of Asa? Here are the odds; place your bets:
3-2 J.R. Davis
Hutchinson’s campaign spokesman. Davis did well so why rock the boat? The former KNWA reporter also served a stint as communications director for Arkansas Congressman Steve Womack.
5-2 Some D.C. flak we’ve never heard of
As fun as this guessing game is, Hutchinson is as likely to pick a familiar party hack from his other home base as he is to cull from local talent.
15-1 Janelle Lilley
The KATV reporter and anchor loves the private option and she earned her GOP bona fides by chasing Mark Pryor to ask him why he wasn’t participating in a debate.
20-1 David Ray
The rough-and-tumble spokesman for the Cotton campaign says he’s staying in Arkansas and he’ll need a new gig. This is a worst-case scenario for the local press (save Jason Tolbert) as Ray has the political pro’s paranoid mistrust of the press (presumably the governor’s schedule would be kept top secret). Ray, who previously worked as a spokesperson for Tim Griffin, would offer the upside of keeping an eye on his old boss lest the lieutenant governor stab Asa in the back with a primary challenge in 2018.
50-1 Andrew Demillo
The ultimate straight man. Grabbing the local Associated Press reporter everyone likes and respects would establish a common-sense moderate brand for Hutchinson, the one-time ideologue.
60-1 Brad Howard
The sharp spokesman for the Mike Ross campaign is a former College Republican. Maybe Team Asa could convince him to flip back. If Blue Dog politicians in Arkansas are thinking about swapping parties, why not flaks?
1,000,000-1 Laurie Lee
OK, Hutchinson is not realistically going to tap the unhinged Tea Partier and book-banner, but she was the only one in Arkansas politics who kept claiming with a straight face that there was nothing offensive about that racist email Leslie Rutledge forwarded (beside Rutledge herself). Chutzpah helps!
*This paragraph has been updated. The day after this story went to press, Sen. Stubblefield withdrew his challenge for Senate leadership.
**This paragraph has been updated to reflect the new revenue estimates from Kansas released on Nov. 10.