Diamonds in the manure of the Arkansas legislature 

Some legislators and legislation shone.

click to enlarge diamond.jpg

The big one

The legislature got lots of things very wrong but managed against long odds to get the biggest issue right. Hundreds of thousands of low-income Arkansans will gain health insurance thanks to the supermajority that accepted the federal Medicaid expansion (routed through private insurance companies via the so-called "private option"). Three Republicans stood up for common sense (at least once the "private option" emerged) against those in their party more interested in ideological rigidity than what was best for the state. Sen. David Sanders (R-Little Rock) was the group's big-picture idea man; Sen. Jonathan Dismang (R-Beebe) their detail-oriented policy whiz; Rep. John Burris (R-Harrison) their preternaturally talented pitchman. They outworked, out-researched, outdebated, and outhustled all comers (among many highlights, Burris and Sanders at a Saline County town hall trouncing a former Romney healthcare advisor — flown in as a hired gun by anti-expansion Americans for Prosperity the night before the big vote — was a sight to behold). We disagree with them on just about everything else but they deserve applause for the Herculean task of getting Republicans on board with doing the right thing. Equally important, Democrats were united in support of expansion from the get-go, and leaders like Rep. Greg Leding of Fayetteville and Sen. Paul Bookout of Jonesboro were vital not just in keeping the caucus together but in keeping them quiet during the expansion debate — biting your tongue ain't easy, but any voices from the left were liable to spook wobbly Republicans. We sometimes had doubts about the party's strategy during the session as they held their powder on just about every issue, but they brought home the big one.

More expansion heroes

Also deserving props for their role in the expansion debate: Rep. Reginald Murdock (D-Marianna) and Rep. Joe Jett (D-Success) played key behind-the-scenes roles for the Democrats on both policy and politics; Fayetteville Republican Rep. Charlie Collins (smart enough to realize that expansion will add money to the state's coffers, which creates more wiggle room for the tax cuts Collins is obsessed with) was a tireless advocate for expansion, obsessively working the phones, town halls, and Capitol hallways with his psychedelic "Charnalogies" (it's like a Rubik's cube, like the grieving process, like rheostat lights); House Speaker Davy Carter (R-Cabot) and Senate President Pro Tem Michael Lamoureux (R-Russellville) might not be moderates in any typical sense of the word but they were sane and effective leaders who managed to climb the supermajority mountain. Finally, just a footnote, but a thank you to Rep. Sue Scott (R-Rogers), for being one of the only legislators to inject the human element into the debate — from her speech on the House floor: "When I look at the numbers, I see faces with those numbers."

Small environmental victories

Sen. David Johnson (D-Little Rock) managed to get two energy-efficiency laws passed. One allows for the creation of energy improvement districts to help fund home or business energy efficiency projects with low-interest loans. This means less demand for power and water by residential, commercial and industrial properties, via the PACE (property-assessed clean energy) program, which allows property owners to finance energy improvements through their property tax assessments. The other law allows state agencies to use maintenance and operations dollars to finance energy cost-saving contracts, which should help the state save money by lowering utility costs.

Speech of the session

Simple decency was hard to come by this session but Rep. Deborah Ferguson (D-West Memphis) could be counted on to deliver. Serving on a Public Health committee dominated by know-nothing grandstanding, Ferguson often managed to gently steer the conversation toward medical facts. On the House floor, she gave the best speech of the session, during the debate over a resolution to reaffirm the Defense of Marriage Act, with Republicans (and no doubt some Democrats, there was no roll call) standing athwart history. "With liberty and justice for all," Ferguson began. "We say that every day. We don't say some, we say all." Yes, the resolution itself was meaningless, but the brand of ugliness for its own sake on display needed to be called out — Ferguson did it with both passion and compassion, grounded in knowledge of the past and hopeful for the future. "We all possess the ability to love, to love people as they are," she said. "This resolution is hurtful, to our sons and daughters and an entire community... I see it as an opportunity for Arkansas to stand on the right side of civil rights. Arkansas has too many times stood on the wrong side of history. Not just the losing side, but the wrong side."

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