Sound and fury 

The Arkansas General Assembly still has congressional redistricting to resolve, but otherwise has completed another furious round of high-volume legislating.

Inside the bubble of the Capitol and the circle whose livelihood depends on legislative activities, it can seem ever so important.

Take a few steps back, though, and you sometimes wonder what all the fuss was about.

Democrats and Republicans alike will tout tax cuts. But a $35 million trim for a state government that spends $25 billion all told is hardly momentous.

That $35 million looks particularly small against the almost $3 BILLION in taxes that legislators want to raise from an increased sales and diesel tax over 10 years to pay for road construction. Wait, legislators say. THEY didn't raise those taxes. They merely asked voters to do it. That's not much of a fig leaf. If you oppose the taxes you don't put them up for a possible affirmative vote. If you think they are necessary expenditures, you vote for them.

The legislature, thanks to Gov. Mike Beebe's leadership, did hold on to the principles established by the Arkansas Supreme Court for what constitutes a sufficient and equitable public schools system. Without that court requirement, government spending certainly would have been cut more. However, the legislature also took the lid off charter schools — nothing more than tiny, independent school districts that, you'd think, wouldn't fit the efficiency model intended through minimum enrollment standards.

Higher education will see its percentage share of state revenue continue to slide downward. And after only one year, the amount paid out per student in lottery scholarships is going down. It's easy to see where this is going. College costs will continue to rise sharply. Even the better students who qualify for lottery scholarships will find it increasingly less affordable. The dream of increasing college enrollment and graduation with gambling proceeds seems ever more impossible.

Arkansas legislators talked a lot, but essentially did nothing about the looming financial crisis for Medicaid or implementing the federal health care law. Gov. Beebe insists the state DID do something about the prison crisis. Sentencing changes and more community-based programs for non-violent offenders are seen as a way to stop the expensive prison growth curve. Good community programs cost money, too, however.

By any measure, the emergence of a two-party system was the big news of the legislative session. Republicans are near parity and they vote with discipline and narrow focus on survey-tested issues. Democrats are, well, Democrats. They range from rural Dixiecrats to urban liberals. They herd as well as cats. House Speaker Robert Moore's coalition building was a monument more to his political skills than any readily identifiable Democratic Party ethos.

But, for this year, Republicans remained in the minority. The Republicans' national cookie cutter agenda —punitive anti-choice laws designed to make abortion, if not illegal, impossible to obtain; immigrant bashing; cost-cutting no matter the damage (even the School for the Deaf's $6,000 budget increase wasn't immune from attack); gun nuttery; religion masquerading as education; vote suppression — met defeat time and again though this agenda has many Democratic sympathizers. The GOP was not beaten by liberal ideologues, but by conservatives, moderates and business people swayed by facts and constitutional imperatives, not raw emotion.

So, before I write off 2010 in Shakespearian terms — sound and fury signifying nothing — the little victories are worth noting. If Republicans take control in 2012 (and they are acting like it's a foregone conclusion), 2010 may be remembered as the high water mark of courage and reason at the Arkansas legislature.


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