There is considerable fear — near-panic in some cases — that the coming legislative session will be the worst in history, and certainly there are indications. The remarks of a newly elected member of the new legislative majority, made at a committee meeting, sent icy chills down many spines. State Rep.-elect Sue Scott, R-Rogers, had just heard testimony that residents of heavily black counties in East Arkansas had life expectancies a decade shorter than residents of Rep. Scott's home county, which is virtually all-white. She leapt to the conclusion that too much Little Debbie and too little willpower were at fault, along with excessive taxpayer generosity to undeserving poor stuffing themselves with sweets.
"I'd like to know," Scott asked a member of the state Minority Health Commission, "have you thought about coming up with something, maybe when these people — these dear people — use their [food stamp] cards when they go to the grocery store, that maybe they have to buy fruits and vegetables and a bag of potatoes to cook instead of buying 14 packages of Little Debbie snack cakes?"
It's been a few years since we heard a legislator refer to the residents of predominantly black counties as "These people — these dear people." We weren't hoping to hear it again. Sen. Percy Malone, D-Arkadelphia, an outgoing veteran legislator, was taken aback by Scott's terminology too, and asked for more specificity. She finessed the question.
The Department of Human Services has explained that while food stamps cannot be used for alcohol or tobacco, the federal government does not allow the imposition of strict rules on what foods the recipients can and cannot buy. The idea is to leave a shred of dignity for those impoverished people — dear or not — on food stamps. When Little Debbie is outlawed for poor people, only dear rich people will eat Little Debbie. That seems to be Rep. Scott's goal. It's not an inspirational legislative priority.
Over at another committee meeting, lawmakers worried about how they could avoid political repercussions if their legislative nonfeasance forced 15,000 elderly poor out of nursing homes and into the streets. They suggested that the Medicaid budget could be cut elsewhere — in programs for children, for pregnant women, for the mentally ill, for providing prescription drugs to people who can't buy their own — so that needy old folks could remain in their beds, rather than herded under bridges or left by the side of the road. The Department of Human Services' proposal that the Medicaid program be expanded with federal money so that all its vital services could be retained did not sit well with Republicans, who'd rather see people hurting than government growing.
But we're not abandoning hope. It's Christmas time. Miracles happen. Might Rep.-elect Scott be moved to deliver a vanload of Little Debbie products to the hungry youth of Phillips County? Might other Republican legislators, lobbied by generous spirits, decide that Arkansas should care for both its elderly and its children? Ebenezer Scrooge was the Sue Scott of his day and he repented and reformed.
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