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While native liberals are distraught over the conservatism of Arkansas politics, Bill Kopsky, executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel, says that politics in his home state of Oklahoma are even rougher and farther to the right than Arkansas's.
"Arkansas still elects moderates who can get things done," Kopsky said. "It's like Hutchinson running against Beebe. Hutchinson ran as a social conservative and Beebe beat him easily." (Former U.S. Rep. Hutchinson, a Republican, opposed Beebe, a Democrat, in the 2006 governor's race.) The panel and its affiliate, the Arkansas Citizens First Congress, can work with Governor Beebe, just as they could work with former Gov. Mike Huckabee, a mostly moderate Republican, Kopsky said.
But Arkansas politics are starting to look more like Oklahoma's. Kopsky said the legislative session earlier this year was the most polarized along party lines that he'd seen in his 15 years with the panel. For the first time, the Citizens First Congress couldn't find a single Republican legislator who'd sign on as a co-sponsor of its bills. And there were more Republicans than ever. The party is likely to gain a legislative majority in the near future.
More far-right Republicans in state government would make the Panel's work more difficult, presumably. But then the continued existence in Arkansas of a poor-man's support group like the Panel, lobbying against big, rich conservative interests like the Chamber of Commerce, the Farm Bureau and the Poultry Federation, is somewhat surprising. At least until one learns that the Panel has more resources than one might have expected.
Operating from a house on Second Street, near the Capitol, the Panel is supported by grants from foundations that share its interest in education, the environment and other issues, and by individual donors. It has an annual budget of $950,000, a staff of 14, "hundreds and hundreds of volunteers," and a professional lobbyist.
But then the Panel has more to do now than in its early years. It was founded in 1963 as "The Panel of American Women," by Sara Murphy, a liberal activist, in the aftermath of the Central High School desegregation crisis. The Panel, all mothers of public school children, championed racial and religious diversity. Other prominent female progressives joined Murphy in the movement — Brownie Ledbetter, Jean Gordon et al. By the '70s, the group was dealing with issues other than school desegregation, and male liberals were signing up. The name was changed to Arkansas Public Policy Panel in 1972.
By 1992, grass-roots activists and people like J. Bill Becker, then president of the Arkansas State AFL-CIO, were talking up a grass-roots lobby group at the Capitol to tell the story that the corporate lobbyists didn't. The Citizens First Congress was formed in 1998. The Congress now has 49 member groups, some of them local grassroots groups that were organized by the Panel — the Gould Citizens Advisory Council, Parkdale Citizens in Action — some of them independent, long-standing groups that support the Panel's work (Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families, the Sierra Club, etc.). The groups select the delegates to the Congress.
The Congress spends about $40,000 a legislative session — the $875 legislative lunch here, the $765 legislative breakfast there. It does little in the way of testifying at legislative committee meetings. The Congress's style is to inform its members about bills that would affect them, and let those members talk to their local legislators. "We bring a lot of grass-roots people into the process," Kopsky said. "They're very effective." Individual members of the Congress' 49 member groups total about 7,000, Kopsky said, and the Panel has 14,000 names in its data base.
A number of the Congress's bills died in this year's more conservative legislature — a "wage theft" bill to penalize employers who don't pay the wages they promised, a bill to protect water and land from pollution by natural-gas drilling, bills to promote energy efficiency and renewable energy. But the Congress says it helped pass legislation to lower taxes on low-income single parents with children, to eliminate red tape that was preventing some eligible children from being covered by the ARKids First health insurance plan, and to require school districts to "stop stockpiling and start spending money designated for helping low-income and minority children achieve more academically."
A team of interns, college students working with the Panel for one semester each, reads all the bills introduced and flags the ones that should interest the Congress. Most of the interns are social studies or political science majors. One or two that work the longest hours are paid "a pittance," Kopsky said. The other 5 to 7 are unpaid. Kopsky has been with the Panel since 1996, and executive director since 1999, when Ledbetter retired.
The legislature meets in regular session for only a few months every two years, but the Panel is engaged fulltime in organizing local groups of activists, especially in the predominantly black communities of southern and eastern Arkansas. Bernadette Devone of Pine Bluff is the organizing director.
The idea is to get people participating in the political process who haven't been doing so before, because "the process is controlled by the same people who've controlled it forever, the good old boys or whatever you call it," Kopsky said. Once the local groups are organized, they go to work building community centers, cleaning up election fraud, improving schools, Kopsky said. The new groups are often in conflict with other residents. In the predominantly black town of Gould, the City Council recently tried to ban a group organized by the Panel.
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