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The politics of opportunity 

Are you sick of the election yet? One thing that seems certain is that our politics remain as hyperpartisan and dysfunctional as ever. I may be naive, but I think Arkansas has an opportunity to help lead the country back toward pragmatic progress on the issues that will make our families and communities stronger.

Arkansas politics, not long ago, had a rare pragmatism and civility that served our state well. Gov. Mike Huckabee pushed through tax increases that radically improved our public education system. Gov. Mike Beebe worked with Republican lawmakers to expand Medicaid. Governor Hutchinson continued that effort in passings Arkansas Works, which now provides life-saving access to quality health care to more than 300,000 Arkansans.

We need pragmatic solutions to expand opportunity because Arkansas can't afford to move backward. We already rank near to last in most indicators of quality of life from income to life expectancy.

And there are numerous issues our leaders should be able to come together on.

On economic development, we need to radically improve our infrastructure and workforce development. We have to find the revenue to pay for the roads we need, but that's not all. Arkansas got a D+ on our infrastructure from the American Society of Civil Engineers. We can create jobs, improve our access to clean drinking water, make our bridges safer, build world class schools, protect our communities from floods and build a strong green energy economy at the same time.

Arkansas retains one of the most regressive tax systems in the nation, taxing poor and middle-income families at over twice the tax rate that our wealthiest people pay. The disparity only got worse with the high-end tax relief passed in the last two legislative sessions. Maybe this will be the session to finally offer working families an earned income tax credit to help lift working people out of poverty.

On civil rights, it should not be a partisan issue to say that the gender pay gap is a problem that needs to be addressed. It should not be a partisan issue to look at the gaps between races on income, housing, health, education, policing, incarceration and more and say that we need to tackle racial inequity head on. Sexual assault became an issue in this presidential election, and Arkansas has an opportunity to reduce both sexual assault and our highest-in-the-nation teen pregnancy rates with common sense reforms to the way we teach children about healthy relationships.

A strong public education system is a universal pillar of economic prosperity. We have a set of proven, near-consensus reforms recommended by groups like Forward Arkansas and the Arkansas Opportunity to Learn Campaign. They include improving and expanding pre-K, improving teacher quality, providing more after-school and summer learning opportunities, reforming discipline policies, improving community engagement and doing more to help children in poverty. Yet state policy debates in recent years have been consumed by attempts to gut standards and retreat from adequate funding while embracing radical and controversial theories of privatizing schools. Why are we arguing over the most contentious and speculative elements of education when we have a whole set of proven reforms that already enjoy public support at our disposal?

Arkansas's prison system is among the fastest growing in the country and we know that it has several fundamental flaws. It's unfairly utilized, targeting low-income and people of color at disproportionate rates. It costs too much. It doesn't treat mental illness well. It becomes a trap. It's choked with nonviolent drug offenders. Again, we have proven, nonpartisan reforms at our disposal: diversion programs for nonviolent offenders. Treating mental illness and drug addiction as public health issues instead of crimes. Improving our over-burdened parole and re-entry systems. These will all take short-term investments to yield long-term gain.

We can improve opportunities for Arkansans while protecting our natural resources as well. We can invest in the critical functions farmers can serve to protect and conserve water quality. We can improve our drinking water. We can expand our parks and tourism industries to share our natural heritage with more visitors. We can transition our energy sector to shift away from dirty coal sources of power and create economic incentives for energy efficiency and clean energy production.

Maybe we are too far down the road of partisanship and big-money political influence, but I hope Arkansas can focus on the politics of opportunity after this election. It would be good for our citizens, and it would be nice to see Arkansas leading, for a change.

Bill Kopsky is the executive director of the Arkansas Public Policy Panel

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