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The opportunity agenda in Arkansas 

Arkansas hasn't seen a political realignment like this in our lifetime, with Republicans gaining 64 of 100 seats in the Arkansas House, 23 of 35 seats in the Senate, and every constitutional office in the general election.

The impact this has on Arkansans working to make ends meet — and on the long-term political future of the state — depends on whether lawmakers heard the real message of the election: Arkansans want expanded opportunities.

Over the past two decades, Arkansas made incredible progress as a two-party system took root. We have one of the fastest improving public education systems in the country. We passed the bipartisan private option that cut our uninsured rate in half. Our economy grew and avoided the worst of the Great Recession. We have a balanced state budget.

So why, with so much progress, did Arkansans vote overwhelmingly for such a change in direction?

Former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich hit the nail on the head: "Most Americans feel like they're still in a recession. And they are convinced the game is rigged against them."

While stock prices and corporate profits soar, Arkansans who work for a living have seen a decline in real wages for the past 30 years. We feel our opportunities diminishing and believe that no one is listening to or fighting for us. We see government actually stacking the deck against us as billionaires gobble up our democracy.

And we are mad about it. Republicans plugged into this anger, won a mandate to address it and now own what happens next.

I think Arkansas could continue on a path of progress if lawmakers get the right message and make it easier for Arkansans who work hard and play by the rules to get ahead.

There are conservative ways to deliver an opportunity agenda.

On jobs, we could invest more in workforce development, transportation and communication infrastructure. We could invest in the thousands of small-business entrepreneurs and develop Arkansas's huge green energy potential.

On education, we need to build on what we've been doing. Over half of Arkansas's students are low-income and our success depends on theirs. There are many proven reforms to boost their learning, such as quality preschools, more accountability on spending, increased teacher quality and more after-school and summer programs. These proven reforms would boost learning for everyone from day one.

On tax and budget policy, where government decisions are really made, the tax breaks lavished on the well-connected in the last legislative session could be delayed to pay for the middle class tax cut promised by Gov.-elect Hutchinson. We should pass an earned income tax credit — a conservative idea to reward work while boosting people from poverty.

We could do what political foes Clinton and Gingrich did to balance the federal budget in the '90s and implement pay-as-you go policies — with lawmakers naming the program they will cut to pay for each tax cut, and naming the funding source they will use to pay for each program expansion.

The private option was a conservative idea that drew Democratic support as a way to expand access to quality health care while increasing competition and driving down costs. Repealing it would not just drop access to health care for a quarter-million Arkansans, it would also blow a hole in the state budget.

We could save millions while improving security by keeping first-time, nonviolent offenders out of the prison system and reducing sentences for petty crimes. We could address the substance abuse and mental health issues that land many people in trouble in the first place, allowing our prisons to focus on dangerous criminals.

No Democrat or Republican wants to live next to something polluting his air or water. We should increase inspections of high-risk facilities while reducing red tape and bureaucracy. We should strengthen the inspection and enforcement divisions so polluters face real consequences when they break the law. There are also ways to address climate change that are good for consumers, good for jobs and even good for utility monopolies.

This election was not a rejection of longstanding Arkansas values. Arkansans still believe that working people should get a fair shake and have an opportunity to achieve the American dream. Opportunity has no political party and the leaders who deliver common sense reforms that create opportunities for everyone will do well. It's the job of each and every Arkansan to hold them accountable for doing just that.

Bill Kopsky is executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel and Citizens First Congress community organizations.

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