Could have been worse 

Until near the end, when Republicans rose up demanding that state government yield to federal bureaucrats, the 2011 legislative session was not as fractured along party lines as observers had feared, though it was still largely disappointing.

Even with the Republicans having achieved near parity in numbers, for the first time in living memory, and thus easily able to block passage of budget bills requiring a three-fourths majority, as most of them do; even with Republicans full of beans after their success in last year's election, clamoring for sharp cuts in both taxes and spending, a policy ruinous for all but the richest Arkansans; even with the first openly Confederate member serving in the House of Representatives, even with all that, most of the routinely essential bills got through, allowing state government to continue functioning. It's something. Congress may not do as well.

The last-minute crisis of partisanship came over the appropriation bill for the state Insurance Department, blocked by Republicans because it included money to set up a health insurance exchange of the sort required by the new federal health care law. "Death Before Obamacare," Republicans cried, and their intransigence eventually resulted in a compromise of sorts: the exchange will be created but by the federal government rather than the state. This meek submission to federal authority should have brought Rep. Loy Mauch to his feet, saber in hand, but the Lincoln-hating, Lee-loving Republican from Bismarck was oddly inattentive as the feds won another one.

Corporations enjoyed their usual hearty dining at the taxpayers' table; they, not political parties, direct legislative actions. The legislators approved bills to lower still further the sales tax on energy used by manufacturers, who already pay a lower rate than residential consumers. Not even an outbreak of earthquakes could persuade the legislature to impose greater supervision on the companies drilling for natural gas in the Fayetteville Shale. Seven regulatory bills were introduced; all failed, as did a bill to collect more severance tax from the gas companies. The legislators approved bills to assist big truckers, at the public schools' expense, and to let polluters re-write state anti-pollution laws. One of the few corporate bills that didn't pass was a Chamber of Commerce proposal to make it more difficult for injured workers to be compensated.

On the brighter side, several malicious anti-abortion bills died in committee, and the legislature declined to force guns into churches or Bibles into schools. There were a few more, but it's a short list.

Still unresolved at press time was the question of congressional redistricting. None of the competing plans offered assurance that the present poor quality of Arkansas's representation would be significantly improved.


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